Basic Tips to Astro Photography

March 24, 2023  •  1 Comment

Hey Everyone!  Hope everyone is doing well and is healthy and safe.  This topic is a spur of the moment one that just occurred to me that I haven't talked about astrophotography before.  While attending a Zoom meeting with my camera club, a lady gave a great presentation on astrophotography, and I just wanted to jump in and give my 2 cents worth.  But I didn't want to be that guy, you know, Mister Know It All.  So this morning I figured I would just send a link to our group of one of my blogs about the subject and there wasn't one.  So this one is going to be it.  Now, I'm no expert on shooting at night, but I have done it a couple of times with both successes and some failures and wanted to share the little that I know with y'all.

Moon Shots.  When trying to get the exposure right on a very bright moon against a dark black sky, you just end up with a white dot if you let your camera do the work.  You need to go into manual to take this shot. Let's think a little about what shooting a full moon is anyway.  You're shooting the reflecting light of the sun.  So you can leave your white balance on "auto" if you're shooting in RAW, which you should be, or you can place it on "daylight" because that is what it is.  The best rule of thumb for me is to use the sunny 16 rule.  This is an old rule developed by Kodak when they were trying to teach people how to use a camera back in the beginning of the consumer camera photography.  The rule states "put your aperture on 16 then match your ASA(ISO) and shutter speed and the photograph will be properly exposed in sunlight." This rule works great for shooting the moon.  Now, you will need a tripod and a telephoto lens, and I would suggest using a remote trigger to keep the camera shaking down to a minimum.  This should give you a properly exposed moon. The gear I used for this shot was a Sony A6500 (a crop sensor camera) and my Sony 70-350 mm lens.  There are all kinds of moon phases, and you can just google and find out when the full moon, half moon, etc. will appear.  So good luck with shooting the moon! LOL  No, not that kind. LOL Taking a photo of the full moon can be a challenge.  

Shooting Stars. Shooting stars is a whole different thing to shooting the moon. The moon is very bright and shining, but stars are far away and have very little light.  So capturing that light is the trick.  I break shooting stars into two categories:  pinpoint stars where the stars are focused and are points of light (shooting the Milky Way also falls into this category) and star trails where the light of the stars makes a trail across the frame of your camera. 

For both types of shooting of the stars in these categories, place your camera in RAW and your white balance to AUTO, and that will take care of these settings and can be adjusted in post production very easily.  We will be shooting in manual mode and will be focusing in manual also.  Auto focusing has a hard time picking out stars to focus on, and manual will be much easier.  A large aperture wide angel lens will be needed.  Remember, we want to catch as much light as possible, so the larger aperture will come in handy.  An "F-stop" of 2.8 to 1.4 is recommended, the largest one you have; a sturdy tripod with a remote release; a head lamp or flashlight with a RED setting is best for working in the dark to preserve your night vision; and of course getting away from light pollution, sources from a town, street lights, or anything that produces light.  Really the farther away from civilization the better.  Shooting in a new moon, which means "no moon or moonlight," is better for this type of photography.  Let's start with star trail since this is the easier of the two.

Star Trails.  The example that I have put here is of what not to do.  Notice the light pollution on the right,  and the composition sucks.  But I did get some trials.  This was a single shot long exposure.  The first thing to remember when shooting stars is that they are not a stationary subject.  The stars move, or really the earth moves.  To get trails the exposures need to be 30 seconds or longer.  Now, you can take some longer exposures of
the stars and get small star trails, say a minute or so, you have to play with the times to get what you like.  Set up your scene with your camera and wide angel lens.  Put your aperture one click from wide open.  If you have it wide open, you could have trouble focusing because of diffraction.  Focusing is one of the hardest things about astro-photography.  This is what I've done.  During the day get your lens that you're going to use and focus on something at infinity and slowly get it as sharp as you can.  I mark this on my lens with a sharpie.  You'll notice that the infinity mark on your lens might not be the actual spot that it's in focus.  When you have this at night when you're back in the field, put your lens at this mark for starters.  Using live view you should be able to magnify what the screen is seeing and pinpoint one star and try to get it in focus as much as you can.  Then have your live view, go back to normal, and you'll be pretty sharp.  My starting points for star settings are aperture is one click from wide open, Shutter 25 sec ISO 3200 take a shot and see what you get.  Make adjustments and trial and error until you get what you Carolina Beach 2020Carolina Beach 2020 want.  If you want trails, make the shutter longer until you get the length you want.  Not too long because you'll be grabbing more light.  Then if your camera has a time lapse feature, use that so your camera will automatically take a photo just past your shutter speed time. You'll have to figure out how many shots you want to take.  Let your camera do the work.  When you get them in post production like Photoshop, you can stack the images together, and you will have very long light trails and sharp ones also.  This is something that takes lots of practice and experimenting, but don't forget the basics of photography like composing a good scene.  Try to have something in the foreground to give interest and contrast to your image. An intervalometer could be useful if your camera cannot do time lapse.  You can get these on Amazon for not too much, but make sure they are for your model of camera.  

Star scenes and the Milky Way.   Just about all of the settings are the same with this type of shooting stars as Max Stansell Photography with the star trails, except we want our shutter to be 25 seconds or shorter because we don't want the blurry stars; we want pinpoint stars.  Focusing will be the same as above, and the starting point settings are the same.  Remember, unless your are really out in the middle of nowhere, you will have trouble seeing the Milky Way with the naked eye.  Finding the Milky Way and certain stars and constellations will be the hardest part because the earth is rotating and the subjects are constantly moving.  Using an app on your phone can be very useful.  Shooting during the new moon (NO MOON)  will also be very useful.  I use the app Photo Pills, and it is a fantastic app for seeing where and when the moon, sun, and Milky Way will be moving through your scene.  It has a virtual horizon that you can use with your camera, and it will show you where the Milky Way will be while you're scouting during the day.  And then when it's the best time to shoot at night, you can go and set up and not have to struggle with location of the Milky Way or stars.  Setting up your scene is still very important with foreground interest and experimenting with shutter speeds and ISO settings.  Remember, the lower the ISO setting, the less noise.  The higher the setting, the more sensitive it is to light.  So there is a balancing act you will have to do to get this right for your camera.  Full frame sensor cameras tend to have better light gathering capabilities, but you can use smaller sensors also.  I use a crop sensor camera and do just fine.  My equipment for shooting night skies is a Sony A6300 or A6500 (Crop Sensor Camera) and a Rokinon 12mm f 2.0 manual lens.(18 mm full frame equivalent).  In lenses, use what you have, the widest aperture.  Maybe a 35 or 24 or even a 50 mm with a 1.4 to 2.8 f-stop will work fine.  Use what you have at first, but wide would be better.

This is a fun type of photography that some photographers really specialize in.  There are all types of gizmos and things you can get to help you with your star photography.  I just covered some of the basics.  You can get devices that track the stars and move while you're taking a long exposure to keep your stars sharp.  There are telescopes and all kinds of things.  You can have GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) overload or you can be like me and just dabble a bit.  Either way it's great fun.  So until next week, get outside and shoot some stars!


Barbara Bozeman(non-registered)
Wonderful blog post, Max. It sure is a tricky topic and you have some great tips to share. Thanks again!
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