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A Beginners Guide to Learning Astro Photography

Oregon and Washington just announced the second COVID-19 Shutdown. If going outdoors is essential to you, but so is your health and the safety of others, I have a suggestion for you. Try Astro Photography. You can find a ton of places, far from human beings, to get you outdoors. Plus, people like astrophotography.

If you have a DSLR, and you want to shoot the stars effectively. Here is how to get started.

First, these directions will be primarily Nikon oriented; some things may be different, but mostly just by name. Here are the most essential things you need to get started.

Shot from Sunrise in Mt. Ranier National park. Notice the two bright stars towards the left, those are Jupiter and Saturn and the streaks coming off them is due to camera shake.

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Essential Equipment Needed to Photograph the Milky Way. 

Basic Needs: 

  • Camera
  • Fast Lens
  • Tripod

Camera

You need a few things to get a solid milky way shot. You obviously need a DSLR or mirrorless camera. I currently shoot with the Nikon D3500. Which is so entry-level as far as DSLRs go; you are not even in the door. That being said, you can still get amazing shots with this camera. It just takes a bit of extra effort. If you have the option, I would suggest buying a step or more up from the Nikon D3500, the Nikon D5600 or the Nikon D7500 would be a huge improvement over the D3500.

For Absolute Beginners

Shot near Dead Horse Point in Utah. The golden hue was most likely due to my white balance being set for daylight or on auto.

A Camera has five ways to control the light that enters your lens. I’ll try to explain them as simply as I can. It’s important because you need to shoot on Manual.

White Balance should be what you set up first prior to shooting. You can put those features on Auto and it usually does a good job. Although, I’ve found that auto white balance tends to give my images a more golden hue. White balance is usually pictured as some variation of sun, shade, and type of light bulb, halogen, florescent etc. It can also be adjusted through kelvins. In astro, you’d most likely be setting your ISO somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 kelvin

ISO is your camera’s sensitivity to light. On a bright sunny day, you’d pick 100 ISO, inside a house on a bright sunny day, you might pick 200. In Astro, depending on the camera, you can shoot an ISO of 1600, 3600, 6400, 12600… ISO and White balance should be the first thing you set before taking photos.

This is from my second attempt. My first attempt was a disaster. I was shooting with a kit lens.

Aperture is like the Iris of your eye. The darker it is, your iris widens. The f-stop is your Iris. Kit lenses are the lenses that usually come with your camera. The lower the number, the more open the aperture is, the higher the number the more narrow it is. Kit lens usually have f/3.5 as the widest aperture.

Wide open apertures aren’t usually used for landscape type photos. Landscape photographers try to make images as crisp as they can throughout the entire photo. It’s not uncommon to see landscape photographers shoot at f/22. Portrait photographers are typically who uses the wide open apertures. Wide open apertures are how they get that nice bokeh (the blurry background). Astro photographers need the wide open apertures because they need to let as much light into the camera as possible. This creates some issues with making landscape style astro photography shots in focus.

Shutter speed is like blinking. It’s denoted in parts of a second or in seconds. 1/4000 of a second will stop a hummingbirds wings, 15″ seconds will allow you to shoot the milky way clearly. In your camera, the quotation mark behind the number denotes whole seconds. but if you just see 40, that usually means 1/40th of a second.

In manual, you would try to adjust the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed so that it aligns with the center of the light meter. If you turn your camera to manual, look through the viewfinder, slightly press the shutter release button, you should see some information appear below what you see. the light meter is a series of hashmarks with -2…-1…0…1…2… The negative numbers mean the image is underexposed, the positive numbers means the image is overexposed. Zero is where you typically want to be and is considered to be perfectly exposed. But you’ll also ignore the light meter for the most part in astro photography.

In film photography, if something was too dark, that information was lost forever, there was no saving it. In digital photography, it is the reverse, if something is too bright or white, you loose all the information.

 

Camera Settings

This is also form my second attempt. The light dome you see in the background is Portland, Oregon which was over two hours away.

Shoot in manual and shoot using raw files. If you want to share right away, you can save the image as both a raw file and a jpeg file. Jpegs look better straight out of the camera, but raw files store more information, take up more space, and make editing photos in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop much easier.

You’ll want to turn off features in your camera’s settings for noise reduction, autofocus assist, also turn off autofocus. Any extra feature that is built into your camera, turn it off. Some of those features introduce shake and will blur your photos during long exposures; some are simply jpeg specific and adds extra workload to your sensor, which increases sensor heat and adds more noise. Turn off image stabilization if that is a feature on your lens. Basically, any extra feature you have on your camera you’ll want to turn it off.

Star Trail image of Mount Baker
White Balance:

It is really your preference. If you set your white balance to auto, your photos usually result in a more golden hue. Most camera’s let you adjust your white balance by picking the type of light. If you can select by type of light, I usually pick in the florescent category, Warm-white, white, cool-white, which tends to give a bluer or blacker hue. That is all personal preference, though. Play around with it.

ISO:

During a full moon, I often shoot at 100 ISO. It is just too bright with long shutter speeds. On moonless nights, turn your ISO Higher. I find that anything after 3200 ISO on the D3500 introduces too much grain for my tastes. Mirrorless cameras and higher-end DSLRs can go significantly higher with far less grain. Once again, it is camera and preference dependent, but generally, higher ISO’s will work better on a moonless night. My suggestion is to use an ISO of 1600 or higher.

This is shot on a random pull off outside of Bend, Oregon The Giant star is Jupiter and the less bright one near it is Saturn, Mars is on the right side.
Shutter speed: 

This is the more challenging aspect. It is important to know your camera’s sensor size and type. Knowing that will help you determine your shutter speed. If you’re shooting for single frames, you want to avoid star trailing. If you do not spend a lot of time looking at the stars, you do not notice how quickly they move in the sky. Your goal should be getting the star’s focus to circle dots, not oval.

There are two main types: full-frame and APS-C sensors. If you have a full-frame camera, you will use the 500 Rule. If you have an APS-C camera like the Nikon D3500, use the 300 Rule. If you are using a 4/3 sized sensor, go to the 200 Rule. You simply divide the number that corresponds to your sensor size by your lens’ focal length.

For my camera with my favorite lens, I take 300 and divide it by 18, which results in 16.67 seconds. If you’re shooting star trails, crank your shutter speed up to 30 seconds. If you are shooting a single still image, start shooting at the shutter speed below that. Newer cameras often need to be shot even lower. At first, it is really a lot of trial and error. After a picture, check out your screen and zoom in on the stars.

Shot during a full moon, from the Mel Wright Observatory in Oregon, it wound up giving a toy like appearance to the foreground. I’m not quite sure why, but I like it.
Aperture: 

 Open as wide as possible.

Focusing:
I went out and spent a good chunk of time shooting only to get home and realize most of the mountain was out of focus. Mt. Shuksan shot from Artists Point at the Mount Baker Ski Resort.

 In a perfect world, you would arrive during daytime and plan your shots, set up your camera, focus on different points, note your focus points so that at night you can look at your notes, turn your focus ring to each of your notes, snap the photo, and then go home and stack them. I am a dad with three young kids and a wife who would prefer my help at home. Which means I do not get to go out during the day to plan my shots. I leave after my wife and kids go to bed. It is dark when I get there.

There are at least three ways to focus your camera. One is a filter called a Bahtinov mask, a special filter that mounts to the lens you use to help you focus your camera. Another way is to turn your camera off, so the light from the screen or viewfinder does not affect your vision. Find a star or a distant light or a friend with a flashlight and focus on that. You can also simply set your focus to infinity if your lens has an infinity marking.

The third and probably proper and most accurate way is to arrive during the day. Set your focus for various parts of the image during daylight, if your lens allows for to see exactly where your focus is set. So focus on something within a few feet, than a few dozen feet, then hundreds of feet. Repeat that procedure at night. Then stack the images using photoshop. (Sequator won’t work for this, or at least I don’t think it will.)

Always take a few test shots and review them from your cameras display. Zoom in on the images and check to see if the stars are warping or if you can see that an image is out of focus. One reason to shoot using Raw and Jpeg files is that you can immediately upload the jpeg files from SnapBridge, Nikons wireless app) to check them on your phone.

It takes some time to really nail down. I’ve taken somewhere over 10,000 astro photos this year and I have both by best work and worst work shared here.

Understanding Lenses

Shot in Monument Valley Arizona during a full moon.

A fast lens is a lens with an aperture that opens to F/2.8, F/1.8, or F/1.4. The wider the lens opens, the more light it lets in for the sensor. A lens that opens to f/1.8 can pick up the aurora borealis on the horizon when it’s 500 miles away. Wide-angle lenses give you a wider field of view and result in depth of field issues if not focused correctly. In portraits shooting at f/1.8 gives you that wonderful bokeh.

The cheapest fast lens I have is the Yongnuo F/1.8 50mm prime lens.  It runs for $59. That lens has also taken a beating and is still going strong.

Another low-cost option is the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM FLD. It costs around $279. It is a solid lens. I do not use it very often, though, but only because of the next lens.

My personal favorite is the Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 Art DC HSM Lens for Nikon. It’s the priciest of the three and costs $599. I love this lens.

Tripods

A Tripod is a necessity when shooting star trails.

If you have a cheap tripod that came with your camera, that will work, but you need a STABLE tripod. The camera bundle tripods are generally ridiculously cheap and poorly built. If you use a cheap tripod, they usually come with a hook somewhere to attach a weight. Bring weight! The very first time I attempted Astrophotography was a failure because the wind was blowing insanely strong and nearly blew my camera and tripod over.  

Ideally, you would invest in a good tripod, especially if you are going to make it a hobby. Ball head tripods are the most stable I have found. I cannot impress the importance of this is enough. I have gone through probably six tripods this year. If I just bought the expensive one first, I would have saved money overall. If you are on a budget, try this one. It appears to be comparable to the Sunpak Travelite. I picked it up at Best Buy and still occasionally use it. It is light and collapses down to be pretty small. It’s not a burden to carry, and it’s remarkably sturdy. But, the legs fall out, it is a far sight better than the tripods that come with the camera bundles, but it is falling apart after a few months, and it is irritating.

I only use it if I don’t want to carry my most recent tripod, the Manfrotto 290 dual. This tripod is heavy duty. It can withstand heavy winds without being weighted. This thing is a the Ferrari of tripods, if Ferrari also made heavily armored Tanks. For some reason, I am highly proud of this tripod. It is quite honestly my favorite piece of gear. I’ve heard of photographers using the same Manfrotto Tripod for decades without an issue.

RECAP:

  • Dark skies away from large cities.
  • Shoot using raw files.
  • Turn off autofocus, noise reduction, autofocus assist, and most other features.
  • White Balance in the fluorescent or 2500-3500 range.
  • ISO cranked up to 1600 or higher.
  • Aperture open to f/2.8, f/1.8 or f/1.4.
  • A shutter speed of 5-30 seconds depends on your lens’s focal length and your sensor size using the 500 or 300 rules. 
  • Use a stable tripod.
  • Take off the camera strap.
  • Set focus at infinity or use light in the distance to focus your camera.

Astrophotography Etiquette

Probably my best photo taken from Sunrise at Mount Rainier National Park.

If by chance, you go to a place where other Astrophotographers are shooting, you’ll want to limit the light you produce. Some people take long exposure shots that can extend a long period. Try not to ruin their shot if you happen across them. Cut off your lights and announce yourself. Ask them to tell you when they are done with their shot, so you can head over without ruining it.

Red lights are for telescopic work and submarines. It does not help. It is also far more difficult to edit out than just a white light. Instead, use your phone screen, not the flashlight, hold it out and point it down towards your feet with the phone screen facing you.

Also, get familiar with your camera and learn how to adjust what you need to adjust in the dark.

I have shot Astro in every state west of the Rockies this year and have only run into two or three other photographers out shooting the stars. They have been wonderfully helpful and even taught me a few things.

Light Pollution and the Bortle Scale.

The Bortle Scale is a one through nine ranking of light pollution. The larger the number the higher light pollution is. A nine on the bortle scale is basically Times Square. A one is in the middle of the Utah desert, five hours from the nearest large city.

Light pollution travels pretty far. I can take pretty great photos at Mt. Rainier, which is two to three hours from Seattle and Tacoma, but on a cloudy day, and shooting towards the cities, the light from the cities reflects off the clouds.

You can use this to your benefit, before the moon rise, the light from the moon starts to become visible. It winds up creating a series of really interesting colors as it rises.

Just prior to the moon rising, you can see the clouds start to glow yellowish
The moon starts to breach the horizon.
The moon fully risen causing the mountains to become silhouettes.
The light from Seattle is seen bouncing off the clouds. Also the mountain is out of focus and the trees are lit up from the nearby buildings at Paradise, a viewpoint on Mt. Rainier.
A single street light hundreds of feet behind me illuminated this cliff face. The stars are trailing as well. I should have decreased my shutter speed.

Apps, Websites, and other tools that can help.

There is a lot of free resources and some paid ones that are excellent resources to use.

First, you need dark skies. Where do you find them? Darksitefinder.com. You are looking for the black, the grays, and the blues. The darker a the location is, the better.

You want clear skies too. I use Accuweather or cleardarksky.com. Clear dark sky is confusing at first, but really you’re looking for the location, local time, and blue boxes.

You need to know when the sun and moon will rise and set and where the milky way will be. For this, I use PhotoPills. It is $9.99 in the IOS app store. PhotoPills has many useful features, from a star trail calculator to augmented reality showing you where the north star is, where the moon and sun are, and their path through the sky. It has tools for exposure, depth of field, information on meteor showers, and how many to expect per hour. You can input your camera and lens, and it will give you way more accurate information on exposing stars than the 500 Rule using their spot stars feature. If you were going to pay for one app. This is it.

Star Trails of Mt. St. Helens. The light from the forest fires from earlier in the year bounced off the dust blowing off the mountain resulted in a pinkish hue.

Photopills’ only shortcoming is that their augmented reality tool does not have a star and constellation identification. For that, I use a free app called Sky Guide. There are probably better versions than Sky Guide. I have heard Stellarium is the best for stargazing, but I have never used it. These tools help to pass the time. They help you identify everything from satellites to constellations.

If you are shooting with a camera like the Nikon D3500 that doesn’t have an intervalometer. The only tool I found that can act as one is the Arsenal Intelligent Camera Assistant. They are currently sold out, and the next version will not be released until fall 2021. I used the Manual Holy Grail Time Lapse feature to get the long series of shots to make the star trails images. At first the Arsenal was a bit of a bear to use. It wasn’t always easy to connect. But it wound up being a life saver. You can often find people selling them in the Arsenal Facebook Groups.

Once you have finished shooting. You can use Sequator to stack your star images. Sequator is a free program for PCs. If you have a mac, Starry Sky Stacker seems to be the most popular.

The Comet Ison shot from the Yakima River Canyon between Ellensburg and Yakima.

Star Trails and Stacking

As the night progresses the earth spins which results in the stars moving through out the sky. This happens pretty quickly. You don’t realize how quickly until you try to capture it with your camera. If your exposure is too long you wind up getting stars that are oval or warped. This is called trailing. using a program like Sequator, Starstax, or Starry Sky Stacker to automatically stack your images either aligning them, which helps the programs reduce noise, increase the visibility of stars, which helps make the milky way far more visible. You can also run those programs to create star trails, star trails track the movement of the stars helping to create circular streaks through the sky. To stack and align the milky way only a few consecutive shots are needed. Star trails are created either by stacking hundreds of photos throughout the night or by taking extremely long exposures which require things like Neutral Density filters. I opt for the multiple images route. Plus, you can also take cool time lapse videos with the images.

Star trail images require that the sky is clear. Clouds or satellites or meteors can ruin a star trail photo. Some stuff can be edited out or hidden, but not a series of clouds throughout the night.

Moon rise over Coldwater lake in Mt. St. Helens National Park.
The star trail image of Mt. St. Helens was created from the photos used in this timelapse.

 

If you want more colorful star trails, try shooting at a ISO of 400, increase ISO winds up turning the stars more white.

 

Using Sequator

  1. Add your series of star images. I have run stacks that only had 3 images and stacks that have had 300. 
  2. The base image is usually the middle image, but you can select anyone you would like. 
  3. Noise images. This is where putting the lens cap on after you take a series of images comes into play. Use one of those lens cap images that you shot immediately after that series of shots use that for noise image. It is not necessary, but it helps.
  4. Vignetting image, zoom your lens all the way out, take a photo of a white featureless object. This will factor in the vignetting created by your specific lens and work to reduce its effects. 
  5. Name the file and location that your image will be saved too. 
  6. If you tried various exposures or shutter speeds, select unify exposure at the bottom of the top box. 
  7. Select composition. Choose either align stars or trails. If you choose to align stars, select freeze ground, and check selective. 
  8. Select the sky region and the option irregular mask. Then drag your mouse on top of the image that is shown on the screen. Your mouse should be a large circle. Hold the left mouse button to paint the sky region green, use the right mouse button to remove if you’ve accidentally painted over the ground, hold the right mouse button to reverse that. You can also use the mouse roller to increase or decrease the size of the brush. 
  9. Auto-Brightness is optional. It depends on the image.
  10. High dynamic range is also optional. It darkens images, but I usually take it into lightroom afterward and can boost it back up.
  11. If you did not use a noise image, select remove dynamic noises. If you did, this is not necessary. 
  12. Select reduce distortion effects—use complex, not tele. 
  13. Reduce light pollution; it just depends on your image. 
  14. I rarely use the enhance star light feature. 
  15. I never use the merge 4 pixels feature.
  16. The time-lapse function will save each of the different variations and save all the separate images that can then be imported into Adobe premiere to create a time-lapse. 
  17. Color space I usually just leave as sRGB, sometimes I select Adobe RGB, I’ve never tried linear. 
  18. Then just click start. 

Tips: If your image did not work out for some reason, it might be because your tripod moved during the series of shots. Try and find the place where your image slightly moved and use the photos before or after that. If your image did not work out, it seems to help if you start a new project and start it again; otherwise, it may just become increasingly skewed. Often, I have found that less is more with Sequator. Do not hesitate to use fewer options like HDR, Reduce Light pollution, etc.

This is probably my favorite one. It’s of the tree of life on the Washington State Coast. A Stack of 150 photos. Only three of the nearly 400 photos I took contained the light behind the tree from a nearby camper that walked behind it.

You will fail. You will spend hours at a night capturing images and get home and find out none of them are in focus. That is okay. Astrophotography isn’t hard, but it is not easy either. When you succeed, and you show your friends, you’ll know when you’ve done something amazing.

Space Knowledge that will help

Can you only go out during a moonless night? No, go out whenever you would like. But the moon is not a disqualifier when you are trying to get the milky way. Full moons do make that extraordinarily difficult. The ideal time to go out is during a new moon (no moon), but you can get a window of opportunity as the moon is getting fuller earlier in the morning and as the moon is approaching the new moon in the evening. A waxing crescent moon will set early in the evening and, as it gets fuller and fuller, will extend further and further into the night. When the moon is waning, you have increasing amounts of time to shoot in the evening.

When is the best time to shoot the milky way? The milky way core is what most Astro Photographers are aiming to get. During Winter, in the northern hemisphere, it does not rise above the horizon during the night. But around February, the galactic core begins to appear in the south, and in October, you catch the last glimpses of it in the north. The best time to shoot the Galactic core is during June, July, and August.

The End… Sort of…

I will be adding more to this post as I learn different aspects of Astro Photography. There is a lot too it. I haven’t attempted deep space photography. I want to give that a shot next year when the milky way pops back up. I also want to add editing techniques as I become more comfortable with Lightroom and Photoshop.

Feel free to make suggestions, send me other tips, or share your photos with me at [email protected].  

Note: I placed affiliate links in here. I actively use the stuff I linked, or it is a comparable product. Honestly, I want a much better camera; they are expensive, my wife is smart and beautiful, but she is adamant I stop spending money on gear, so if you click on a link Amazon will give me a commission. Who knows, Maybe it will help fund future upgrades.

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Written by Corey Dembeck

2 Comments

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  1. Great article, One of the other handy things about shooting with Nikon is that you can use old F-mount film lenses on the newer DSLRs.
    I just keep my eyes open at Thrift stores, tag sales and such. I have found some decent lenses for cheap that way.

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