Anne Darling Photography

Amateur Astrophotography

A Beginner's Quick-start Guide

Amateur astrophotography is available to anyone with a simple point-and-shoot camera. This introduction will get you started taking shots of the Moon, planets, constellations and more.

With a camera of any kind and a tripod you can shoot constellations or capture beautiful images of the Moon and the planets at dusk. With a telescope you can shoot close-ups of the craters on the Moon. Or you can go the whole hog with a telescope on an equatorial mount and track the stars using long exposures to shoot galaxies and nebulae. The universe is waiting!


Moonrise over Red and Blue Haze by Flagstafffotos
Canon 20D, Tamron SP AF28-75mm, f/2.8 XR Di

Camera Settings

You need to set your camera manually but if your camera doesn't have a manual mode then set it to night mode, if available. Turn off in-camera sharpening if possible as it doesn't enhance the shot at the ISO setting you will be using. Otherwise:

  1. Aperture: as wide as possible. Bigger hole=more light (f/2.8 or less)
  2. ISO: as high as possible. Higher ISO=greater sensitivity to light (400 or more)
  3. Shutter Speed: as long as possible. Longer shutter speed=more time to gather light (1 second to start)

Focus

Focus needs to be set manually so turn off the autofocus and set it to the further point that the camera will focus on (infinity).


Jupiter-Venus-Moon Smile, photographed from Canton, China by 1j1z2
Canon EOS 450D, 1.3 seconds, f/2.2, ISO 100, focal length 50 mm

White Balance

The white balance on your camera will be set to auto which is good for daylight setting but needs to be changed for shots of the night sky as you may wind up with a redish coloured sky otherwise. Change the setting to 'tungsten' for now and remember we can tweak the shot in Photoshop afterwards as well.

Timing is All

To avoid movement of the camera, it's preferable to use a tripod or a bean bag and solid object like the bonnet of the car as shutter speeds need to be slow in order to give the sensor time to 'gather' light. To avoid internal vibration, use the self-timer or a remote release. Try a whole series of different exposures starting at 1 second. Then try 2 4, 8, 15 and 30 seconds.

Tweaking

Look at your pictures on your computer. You images will be grainy from using a high ISO but if you have Photoshop or other software you should be able to reduce noise to improve the quality. There may also be a reddish colour cast too which can be adjusted. Also check out brightness and contrast.


La Lune et Vénus au-dessus de l'Observatoire du Paranal au Observatoire Européen du Paranal, Désert d'Atacama, Chili by Gerhard Hüdepohl
Nikon E5400, 1.77 seconds, f/4.9, ISO 100, focal length 19.8 mm

What's Next?

To make shots of the stars you need to put your camera on telescope with a motorized mount. Then you have a choice of either taking the lens off your camera and connecting it to the telescope so that the scope acts as the lens. Or you can use the camera with the lens still attached and 'piggyback' the camera on top of the telescope.

A telescope with an altazimuth mounting to track the stars wil allow for exposures up to about 30 seconds. Longer exposures require an equatorial mounting that is polar aligned.


The Planet Jupiter by Amirber
Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License
Meade DSI III camera via an LX200 16" Meade telescope

Astrophotography Telescopes

There are basically three different types of telescopes that are suitable for astrophotography: the refractor, the reflector and the much more modern catadioptric. I have written a separate article on astro photography telescopes specifically for photographers who want to buy a telescope to use with their camera.

You might also like to check out my article to get you started making great photographs of the moon.

Recommended Reading

Astrophotography for the Amateur is the perfect introduction for amateur astrophotography novices and also a reference manual for more advanced individuals. With this extraordinary handbook, you too can frame the stars and have them hanging on your living-room walls. Astrophotography for the Amateur provides a complete guide to taking pictures of stars, galaxies, the Moon, the Sun, comets, meteors and eclipses.

This book will appeal to amateur astrophotography enthusiasts who will discover how to take spectacular images with only modest equipment. The book covers all topics relevant to astrophotography, including telescope considerations, mounts, camera types and lens, focusing, photographic methods (prime focus, projection, etc.), photographing meteors, aurora displays, planets and deep space objects.

This is the finest of the subject at this level available in book form and is perfect for amateur astrophotography enthusiasts.





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