Ever find yourself looking in awe from the glorious sky above? That’s the feeling Astrophotography conveys and a feeling familiar to all astronomy enthusiasts. So if you want to learn how to capture stunning images of the night sky, you’re surely not alone. Astrophotography is one of the mediums that truly gives us a perspective on how humble and small we are. And how little our world is in the grand scheme of the universe.
Astrophotography comes in many forms, some more advanced than others. And it’s generally regarded as one of the most difficult mediums in photography, given the extensive learning curve. Still, with a bit of patience and practice, you can overcome its challenges and capture excellent nightscapes or images of the stars above. And if you’re armed with the right camera, a fast lens, and a sturdy tripod, creating stunning results could be easier than you may think.
It used to be that capturing images of the Milky Way, galaxy, and planets was the preserve of professional photographers. But these days, the playing field has changed with the advent of prosumer-oriented DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. And these cameras are now serious contenders for shooting wide-angle constellations. So, no. Anyone photographer armed with the proper knowledge, settings, and the right tools is capable. And you can do so mostly without telescopes and using expensive tracking mounts or filters.
But, picking the right tools for astrophotography is no easy feat. There’s an enormous number of considerations to factor into the decision-making process. And merely deciding between an interchangeable digital camera or a dedicated astrophotography camera is no feat in itself. So, to aid in that quest, we’ve created a detailed guide outlining these considerations in great depth. And we’ll present our thoughts and cover the best astrophotography cameras on the present market.
Jump to a Section
- 5 – Pentax K1 Mk II
- 4 – Nikon D750
- 3 – Canon 6D Mark II
- 2 – Sony A7 III
- 1 – Canon EOS Ra
- Buyers Guide
- Types of Astrophotography
- What’s the best camera for astrophotography?
- Interchangeable Lens Cameras (ILCs)
- Dedicated Astrophotography cameras
- How to choose the best astrophotography camera
- Camera Type
- Sensor Size
- Manual Settings
- Long time exposure settings
- Mirror lock up feature
- Electronic first curtain shutter or fully electronic shutter
- Low Light Performance
- Focus Aids
- Tilting Screens
- Shutter Release
- Red Light Flashlight or Headlamp
- External Power
- Tethered shooting
- Best Camera settings for Astrophotography
- Astrophotography tips and techniques
5 – Pentax K1 Mk II
First introduced in 2018, the Pentax K1 Mark II refines Ricoh’s flagship K1 lineup. It features a full-frame 36.4 megapixel CMOS sensor and an ISO range from 100 to 819,200. It also has a 3.2-inch cross-tilt screen, a status LCD, weather sealing, in-body stabilization, dual card slots, HDR, multiple exposures, an intervalometer, and wireless connectivity.
This model gains the Handheld Dynamic Pixel Shift Mode, which combines four images by moving the sensor to improve fine detail, noise performance and removes color artifacts. It also boasts a unique feature called the Astrotracer Mode. Here, the camera uses its 5-axis stabilization mechanism with its built-in GPS and electro-magnetic compass to track stars across the sky. And doing so prevents star trails at longer shutter speed, thus removing some of the need for a motorized equatorial mount. And it also has built-in LED lights on the body to help when using the camera in the dark—a rare but brilliantly helpful addition.
Overall, Pentax’s K1 II provides some rather niche and useful features for nightscapes and astrophotography. And for the price, it’s quite a powerful tool that’s hard pressed to beat with so many valuable features.
4 – Nikon D750
First introduced in 2014, Nikon D750 was the first to debut a new lineup with similar features from the D810 at a far lower price. It features a 24.3-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor and a native ISO range from 100 to 12,800. It also features a 3.2-inch tilting LCD, a status LCD, dual card slots, an intervalometer, HDR, weather sealing, mirror lockup, and wireless connectivity.
The D750 marked Nikon’s first DSLR with autofocus support to -3EV, letting you use autofocus in dimly lit scenes with confidence. And it was also their first full-frame SLR with a tilting LCD, for super versatility when shooting the low angles often standard in astrophotography. Yet, it also boasts a remarkable battery life of 1,230 shots on a single charge, outperforming the higher-end D810. And thus, it removes much of the need for carrying a spare.
Overall, Nikon’s D750 marks the perfect midground between the higher-end D4S and D810. And it brings pro-level handling to a versatile design and affordable price point.
3 – Canon 6D Mark II
First introduced in 2017, Canon’s 6D Mark II bridges the gap between their entry-level and professional-level DSLRs. It features a 26.2-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor and a native ISO range from 100 to 40,000. It also features a 3.0-inch vari-angle touchscreen, a status LCD, time-lapse, HDR, weather sealing, GPS, and wireless connectivity.
With this refresh, Canon improved the sensor’s design, upping its resolution, fine detail, and signal-to-noise ratio in the process. But, crucially, it’s their first EOS DSLR with a vari-angle touchscreen LCD to adjust the focus easily, change the settings, or zoom by touch gestures. The touchscreen combined with their brilliant Dual Pixel CMOS AF creates a seamless Live View shooting experience, now with support to -3EV. Merely tap on the subject on the display, and the camera will accurately focus and track it across the frame. It’s a subtle bonus for astrophotographers that will ensure foreground subjects in nightscapes are properly in focus. Plus, the 6D also marks one of few Canon DSLRs with built-in GPS, letting you tag critical location data to your photos in the field.
Overall, Canon 6D Mark II brings high-end full-frame performance into a gloriously compact body. And it’s a full-featured DSLR that makes high-end imagery incredibly accessible.
2 – Sony A7 III
First introduced in 2018, Sony’s A7 III remains their most popular mirrorless camera to date. It features a 24.3-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor and a native ISO range from 100 to 51,200. It also has a 3-inch tilting touchscreen, in-body stabilization, weather sealing, dual card slots, HDR, and wireless connectivity.
The A7 III debuts the new Z-type battery, which finally brings a much-needed bump in longevity amongst mirrorless cameras. But at 710 shots per charge, it outpaces many mid-range DSLRs and stands as the longest of any full-frame mirrorless camera. But, crucially, this camera debuts a backside-illuminated sensor to the standard A7 line. This sensor design improves the camera’s light collection efficiency helping resolve fine details and improves its low-light performance. And it also boasts a remarkable 15 stops of dynamic range, making it best in class amongst its peer group, outcompeting the coveted D750 and D810 in this regard.
Overall, Sony A7 III remains a powerful contender amongst the astrophotography crowd. And given its attractive price, outstanding dynamic range, and low light performance, it’s quite an excellent one indeed.
1 – Canon EOS Ra
First introduced in 2019, Canon’s EOS Ra marks their third dedicated astrophotography camera, finally refreshing the dated 60Da. But, it’s the world’s first full-frame ILC explicitly designed for astrophotography. It features a 30.3-megapixel CMOS sensor and a native ISO range from 100 to 40,000. It also features a 3.15-inch vari-angle touchscreen, a status LCD, weather sealing, multi-exposure, time-lapse, USB charging, and wireless connectivity.
Like the 60Da, the EOS Ra obtains an infrared (IR) cutting filter above the CMOS sensor. This modification allows the camera to maintain the near-infrared deep red hues typically absent in other cameras. And it permits 4x more hydrogen alpha rays than the standard EOS R and even surpasses the older 60Da. As such, it’s ideal for capturing the deep red hues emitted by nebulae without requiring specialized optics, accessories, or sensor modifications. The Ra also boasts a whopping 30x high magnification mode, a first to Canon’s EOS lineup. This is quite an advantageous option that ensures exact focusing on even the smallest stars or DSOs. And you get this magnification in both the viewfinder and its rear LCD. Plus, the updated 30.3MP sensor has a much larger pixel size at 5.36 microns (20% larger), which noticeably reduces high ISO noise. And the camera obtains Dual Pixel AF with outstanding sensitivity to -6EV.
Overall, Canon’s EOS Ra stands alone as the only modern dedicated astrophotography camera outside the Nikon D810A. But, as a camera that follows in the lines traditions, it’s a bold release. And it’s the ideal companion for astrophotographers and enthusiasts to the medium. But one that delivers the glory of a large full-frame image sensor.
Types of Astrophotography
There are many types of Astrophotography mediums, many of which differ in their approach. But you can apply the same general methods to each style to lessen much of the learning curve.
Astrophotography is a general term that describes capturing images of stars or any celestial object in space.
Star trails focuses on using longer exposures combined with a rotation of the earth. Here you can capture the stars spinning around a central point to look like bright circular lines.
Nightscapes and wide-angle Milky Way combine both Astrophotography and traditional landscape photography. Here you’ll have conventional landscape elements in the foreground with a vast night sky above.
Deep Sky focuses on capturing more detailed astronomy. Here you attach your camera to a telescope to extend its range so you can photograph galaxies and far-off celestial objects.
Planetary photography focuses on capturing clearer images of the various planets in our solar system.
Moon photography focuses on capturing sharp and detailed images of the moon’s surface.
What’s the best camera for astrophotography?
There are several types of cameras for astrophotography, and the best camera will ultimately depend on how serious you want to take this medium. And the specific aspects of the night sky you’ll capture. Below are a summary of the main options and their ideal uses.
Interchangeable Lens Cameras (ILCs)
The most common cameras for astrophotography are DSLR and mirrorless cameras. These are CMOS-based cameras, which use a rolling shutter to expose the sensor from side to side. And they’re the go-to choice given their simplicity, flexibility, and familiarity.
These cameras are self-contained, easy to use, and deliver outstanding images when paired with a refractor or catadioptric telescope. And you’ll attach these cameras to the scope using a T-ring adapter, which slots in place of a standard camera lens. Here, the scope functions as an enormously powerful telephoto lens, so you can capture planetary images. However, to do so, you will need a star tracking mount, a motorized mount that accounts for the earth’s rotation. But with this mount, you can also capture several images and stack them to improve the detail. Thankfully, you don’t need a telescope to take amazing photos with them. Instead, you can use a sturdy tripod and a wide-angle lens and capture incredible nightscapes too.
The main downside with ILCs is the lack of sensor cooling, which creates visible read noise during long exposures. This noise isn’t problematic for shorter exposures for bright subjects like the moon and some planets. But, for the deep sky, it’s an enormous issue, as you’ll be doing minute-long exposures. During that time, the sensor generates quite a bit of heat, creating hot pixels throughout the final image. And it’ll take some work in post-processing to remove these. So if image quality is vital, then getting a dedicated astrophotography camera would be best. Alternatively, master dithering, capturing dark frames, and digitally stacking images in post-processing so that you can lessen their effects.
ILCs also have an internal filter that removes most near-infrared light, eliminating much of the color from emission nebulae and deep red hues. Thankfully, you can modify them by removing the sensor’s infrared (IR) cut filter to improve their red and near IR sensitivity. And doing so does make the camera suited for imaging deep sky objects (DSO’s). However, they’ll become unsuited for regular daytime photography without an accessory UV-IR filter.
Lastly, the RGGB Bayer Array construction of ILCs reduces much of the precious light when photographing DSO’s. And it also lowers the color fidelity. This is primarily due to how the sensor captures incoming photons. And the rejection that occurs when incoming doesn’t land perfectly on the correct pixel.
Overall, ILCs are the ideal starting point for those looking to jump into this medium. And given these cameras are multi-use, they’re the better investment for most. The latest cameras also boast better signal-to-noise ratios, lower dark current, wider fields of view, high-resolutions, and superior affordability. With a sturdy tripod and a wide-angle lens, you can capture great nightscapes and star trails. And you can do so without much investment. As such, we’ve focused this particular list solely on CMOS-based cameras.
But there are dedicated astrophotography cameras, too, for those wanting unrivaled professionalism.
Dedicated Astrophotography cameras
These are the defacto standard for professional astrophotography, particularly deep sky, constellations, and large form planetary imaging. These cameras are generally CCD-based (Charge Coupled Devices). The main difference is that CCD cameras use a global shutter, which exposes the entire sensor at once, rather than scanning from top to bottom.
You can find two main options for these cameras, which are either monochromatic and One-Shot Color CCDs. Monochrome cameras remove the RGGB Bayer Matrix and shoot in black and white only. But, you can attach LRGB or narrowband filters to shoot in a specific color range, letting you create stunning images despite light pollution. But with LRGB filters, monochromatic cameras capture 100% of the available light photons. But if you want to create colored RGB images, it will take three times as long, or four with the Luminance filter. And it’s quite an involved process in post-processing. Color CCDs, however, maintain the Bayer Matrix and shoot in color. And they’re closely related to ILCs in this regard. But they provide a tuned IR filter to increase their performance in the red spectrum. And that remains a key benefit compared to an ILC.
Either way, though, you’ll connect these cameras to a separate computer. And on the computer, you’ll compose, focus, and save images. Each camera does have specific software that it interfaces with, however. But the most common is CCDSoft, Maxlm DL, and CCDOPS. And while you can use any mount and telescope, most recommend equatorial mounts and high-end refractor telescopes.
The downside here is these cameras require expensive filters, telescopes, star-tracking mounts and are solely computer-operated. Granted, planetary imaging is more affordable than deep sky imaging in this regard. You’ll have to battle a steep learning curve when getting a proper setup. You’ll need to understand appropriate mounting, picking the correct telescope, tracking, manual guiding, and much more. The upside, however, is that they provide superior near IR sensitivity for emission nebulae. And many of these cameras have cooled sensors, which reduce heat-related digital noise caused by long exposures. They also provide a better dynamic range, better pixel-to-pixel reproduction, and superior image quality. So the learning curve and expense are profitable long-term.
Overall, CCD-based cameras the gold standard if you want professional-level astrophotography images and utmost control over the imaging process. And you’ll get pictures with the greatest detail, least noise, and superior versatility. And they’re ideal for deep sky imaging or for those wanting to use a camera strictly with a telescope.
How to choose the best astrophotography camera
Below you’ll find a host of considerations when looking at various astrophotography cameras.
You have two main types of cameras outside of dedicated astrophotography CCD-based cameras. Those choices are DSLR or mirrorless cameras.
DSLR cameras offer larger, heftier bodies with supremely comfortable ergonomics. And that larger size also means substantially larger capacity batteries and longevity. But, they do have an internal mirror, which slaps close, causing vibration. So to minimize the vibration, you’ll want to enable the mirror lockup feature. Even so, the added size of DSLRs makes them more stable in the field and more comfortable to use. Granted, they do require more robust and expensive tracking mounts if you go that route. So they can get quite pricey compared to a mirrorless camera.
Mirrorless cameras, however, don’t have internal mirrors, so they suffer less from vibrations. And they also have a short flange to sensor distance, making them easier to use with reflecting telescopes. Additionally, their electronic viewfinders provide better focusing aids, such as peaking, to help capture critically sharp images in the field. The only real downside is that their battery life is considerably worse than a comparable DSLR. So you will want to invest in spare batteries or a USB battery bank. Otherwise, they’re an excellent choice if you want a camera specifically for astrophotography.
For astrophotography, a full-frame CMOS sensor is best, unless you plan on going the CCD route. There are several reasons, but mainly the larger size increases light collection efficiency and dynamic range—the combination of these two results in better low light performance. Noise and sensor size are inversely related. So as sensor size decreases, the noise will increase, reducing image quality along with it.
However, if you’re starting and have a limited budget, APS-C-sized cameras are also great. And they’re a go-to choice for planetary photography. Namely, these cameras are more affordable, and their lenses are considerably smaller, lighter, and more affordable than full-frame. But, understand, you will have more noise in your images. Also of note, if you’re using a telescope, smaller sensors will leave out part of the image. To capture the full size, you’ll also have to shoot several exposures and then stitch the photos in post-processing into a mosaic. And for beginners, this process is rather complicated and not recommended.
This is also a bit counterintuitive, but you also want a low-resolution full-frame sensor. Again because of the inverse relationship between noise and sensor size. So since lower resolution cameras have fewer pixels, each is larger. Hence, each pixel receives more photons of light, resulting in less noise overall. This also increases the camera’s signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), which is everything in this medium. As such, a 16-megapixel camera would outperform a 45-megapixel camera when comparing noise. And for astrophotography, reducing noise is critically important to distinguish stars from random specks and digital artifacts.
Additionally, on this front, larger pixels also don’t heat up as much as smaller ones. And sensor heat is a primary component in digital noise and hot-pixels. As such, smaller pixel high-resolution cameras will have greater digital noise and suffer the most from subtle sensor overheating. And in general, they’ll have the worst image quality for this reason. So if image quality is of utmost importance to your work, look for a low-resolution full-frame camera that meets your budget.
Automatic modes for exposure, focus, and white balance don’t play nicely with astrophotography. And you’ll be configuring your camera manually, even more so if you plan on stacking images to reduce noise. In such cases, exposure and the white balance must stay consistent. And you’ll want to override the camera’s automatic settings and turn them off.
Long time exposure settings
You’ll want to ensure your camera offers long-exposure times of at least 30 seconds and a bulb mode. You’ll commonly shoot 15-20 second exposures in the field, so if the camera doesn’t offer this shutter speed natively, it’ll require a release cable. The bulb mode is helpful for other more advanced forms of astrophotography that record minute-long exposures.
Mirror lock up feature
If you plan on shooting Astrophotography with a DSLR, you’ll want one that has a mirror lock-up feature. And it’ll ensure that you can get sharp long exposure images.
Electronic first curtain shutter or fully electronic shutter
Both electronic first curtain and full-time electronic shutter eliminate vibration due to the mechanical shutter’s shock. The only slight trade-off is that the full-time electronic shutter can increase the noise of a photo. So if you’re shooting in a supremely dim scene and you’re already at a high ISO, consider using a shutter release cable instead. There you’ll get the same general benefit without increasing the noise in the process.
Low Light Performance
Not all cameras perform equally in low-light scenes. And a 2 to 3 stop difference in dynamic range is a key separator between the best and worst low light cameras. Even two stops can reduce the noise in your photo by a fourth. Thus, a better dynamic range reduces the number of exposures you’ll need to stack images in post-processing, saving you time. As such, you’ll want to investigate the camera’s low light performance beforehand. And also, keep in mind that cameras with wider native ISO sensitivity ranges typically have better signal-to-noise ratios and less noise overall.
Achieving correct focus is critical for astrophotography. And simply setting your lens to manual focus and setting the focus collar to infinity isn’t always sufficient. As such, you want to ensure your camera offers at least a magnified view of the image so you can achieve proper focus. And for mirrorless cameras, ensure it has focus peaking, which paints in-focus areas with red, blue, or white. Both of these assist tools will ensure you get critically sharp images every time.
For astrophotography, a tilting LCD screen is essential. This type of articulation offers two primary advantages. Firstly it makes it easier to frame the night sky, as you’ll mostly be tilting your camera upwards. So it prevents the need for crouching or sitting in the dirt to properly compose an image. Secondly, it also helps dissipate heat, ensuring the sensor remains cool and reduces a phenomenon called dark current. Dark current refers to the introduction of noise that occurs as the sensor gradually heats up. And a cooled sensor that removes this issue is a primary advantage of dedicated astrophotography cameras. But at least with a tilting screen, you can place a small cold pack on your camera’s back to reduce its internal temperature slightly to aid cool the sensor.
A shutter release cable for your camera is essential in astrophotography. As in most circumstances, you’ll be shooting long exposures, and simply depressing the shutter button introduces vibration that causes blur in your images. Shutter release cables also let you shoot longer exposures than 30 seconds if needed. And while you may not shoot longer than 30 seconds in most situations, minimizing camera shake is of utmost importance. So at the bare minimum, these cables entirely remove shake in your exposures.
When it comes to releases, you have several options. You can opt for one that connects mechanically, electrically, uses infrared, or a wireless system. But go for a system that works best for your workflow. Otherwise, use your camera self-timer and set it to 10 seconds to let it stabilize before starting an exposure.
A lot of popular Astrophotography images require multiple images that are later combined in post-processing. And to do this seamlessly, you’ll want an intervalometer for your camera. You can either use an external physical intervalometer, which provides slightly greater flexibility. But, most built-in intervalometers, found in the cameras shooting menu, are capable enough and apt for the job. So in most circumstances, you won’t need the physical accessory.
A tripod is an essential accessory for astrophotography. And you want a tripod that balances size, weight, and stability. So one that’s not too bulky but not too faint either that it’ll quickly move during a slight wind.
Red Light Flashlight or Headlamp
Consider investing in a red-light flashlight or headlamp as part of your initial setup. A red headlamp will keep you hands-free and mobile while shooting. But it will also light the scene around you without reducing your night vision. And considering you’ll be going into pitch-black scenes, it’s a must ensure you say safe.
Capturing Astrophotography images requires hours of taking photos or using extended time-lapses. And it’s a medium that goes well beyond the capacity of most internal batteries. Not to mention, camera batteries also lose capacity when subject to cold weather. So even a fresh batch can drop to half its capacity as temperatures drop.
Thus, you’ll want to consider purchasing extra batteries for your camera and possibly a dual battery grip. And if you’re deciding on a new camera, look for options that offer USB charging, so you can charge out in the field using a small battery pack or bank. But, know, some cameras only charge the internal batteries when powered off, and they don’t support continuous charging operation. So ensure the camera offers this particular ability. Otherwise, it’s not quite as helpful.
Connecting your camera to a computer for tethering will help you compose and focus your images on a larger screen. And it’s quite a useful bonus if you’re capturing astrophotography with a mirrorless or DSLR camera setup.
However, tethered shooting is a must if you plan to use dedicated Astrophotography cameras, like those from ZWO, or plan on attaching your camera to a motorized telescope. These devices require a computer to interface and control them.
Best Camera settings for Astrophotography
Below you’ll find fifteen to get stunning astrophotography images.
- Switch your camera to manual mode. Here you’ll have the most control over how it captures images. And you can freely adjust the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and overall exposure as needed.
- Set your camera’s image quality to RAW. Shooting in the RAW format preserves all of your camera’s precious image information, giving you more data and flexibility for post-processing. This format also captures the full 12 or 14-bit dynamic range your camera provides. And it does so without adding compression, built-in noise reduction, or sharpening, which can often be problematic. As such, you’ll be able to distinguish a dim star versus a speck of noise easily. And you also have more flexibility to control the exposure after the fact. Sure, shooting in JPEG is convenient. But, the compression that occurs to reduce its file size greatly reduces image quality and increases artifacts. And shooting at night only exacerbates these particular issues. So we recommend RAW for these reasons.
- Use a prime wide-angle lens. With a wide-angle lens, you’ll be able to capture the night sky and your surroundings in all their glory. And you’ll get a larger field of view to include more elements within your scene or in the sky above. Additionally, use a prime lens here, as they provide better image quality than a zoom lens of the same focal length. This is because zoom lenses have more internal glass elements, which typically increase distortion. And while they’re convenient for daytime photography, they skew stars around the frame’s edges.
- Select a fast aperture. When shooting Astrophotography, you’ll be in mostly pitch black locations. And you want to give your camera a fair chance of capturing all the precious light available in your scene. As such, set your lens’s aperture to F2.8- F/4.
- Turn off autofocus. Most cameras will struggle to focus without sufficient light. As such, you’ll be focusing manually when shooting astrophotography. So, flick your focusing dial over to manual focus. Then turn the collar to infinity and take a shot. Now, analyze the stars to gauge critical focus. And if you realize the image is slightly soft, tweak your focus as necessary. If you want to try autofocus, try focusing on a distant subject in your scene or on the moon when applicable.
- Switch your white balance to the daylight setting. Using the daylight setting will color correct your images so that the white color of stars remains perfectly white.
- Set your ISO between 800 to 1,600. A slightly higher ISO setting will bring out the night sky, the moon, and the stars. If you have a full-frame camera that excels in low-light scenes, you can raise it further if needed. But in general, the ISO that you select will largely depend on your lens’s maximum aperture and the amount of ambient light available. But expect to use somewhere between ISO 1,600-3,200 for most scenes.
- Select a slow shutter speed. The sweet spot for most Astrophotography is between 15 to 30 seconds. This will give your camera enough time to capture a long exposure without being too long to create unwanted star trails.
- Attach a shutter release cable or set up your camera’s built-in timer. To reduce camera shake and create high-quality images, you’ll want to connect a remote shuttle release. Alternatively, you can configure your camera’s built-in self-timer for 10 seconds if you don’t have one. Either way, you’ll get higher quality images without the camera shake introduced by depressing the shutter button.
- Turn down your rear LCD screen brightness. Set the LCD screen brightness as low as possible so you can get an accurate preview of the exposure out in the field.
- Disable long exposure noise reduction. This feature takes an additional exposure when the shutter closes and subtracts it from the image. But doing so causes gaps in the star trails and reduces detail. Thankfully, this particular feature only affects JPEG images, not RAW. So it depends on your file format set up. Even so, it’s better to apply noise reduction or use image stacking in post-processing to do this rather than relying on the camera.
- Disable in-camera sharpening. While built-in sharpening can make stars look sharper, it also increases image noise when shooting JPEGs a higher ISO’s. Thankfully this feature does not affect RAW images. Even so, it’s still best to save fine sharpening for post-processing.
- Turn off stabilization. When shooting Astrophotography, you’ll be mounting your camera on a tripod to hold it steady. So if your lens has optical image stabilization or your camera has in-body image stabilization, turn these features off.
- Enable mirror lookup. For those that have a DSLR, enable its mirror lookup. This feature ensures the internal mirror remains upright, so it doesn’t slap down, causing vibrations and blurry images.
- Cover your viewfinder. Many cameras have known light leak problems, so covering the viewfinder with your hand or cloth will prevent stray light from disrupting your exposure.
Astrophotography tips and techniques
Here are some valuable tips so you can capture the best Astrophotography images in your local area.
First and foremost, head outside of your city. To capture the best Astrophotography images, you’ll need dark and clear skies, which are virtually impossible to see in urban areas. Namely, because the light emitted from street lights, cars, and buildings create light pollution. And this added light makes it difficult to see the stars and celestial objects overhead. As such, you’ll want to head to a remote area that’s an hour or so drive outside most cities. But if you do want to shoot in your town nonetheless, consider investing in a light pollution filter, which attaches to your lens and blocks stray light. With this filter, you can still see much of the sky above, though not all of it.
Second, check the weather beforehand so you can go out and shoot on a clear day. If you experienced wet weather that day, consider rescheduling and postponing your shoot. As rain pollutes the air with moisture and dust, reducing the night sky’s transparency in your photos. Additionally, avoid shooting on full moon nights unless you want to light the foreground purposely. Instead, the best time to shoot is six days before the new moon or four days after. This is considered the stargazing window where the night’s sky is moonless and easily visible. So, stay up to date with the moon’s cycle and the time of the year to ensure you get pitch-black skies.
Third, consider visiting your shoot location during the day. By doing so, you can look for interesting subjects to include as foreground elements. And these elements can help draw the viewer into the image. And they’ll also help your pictures stand apart. Try something unusual, like a battered building, car, or an unusual tree. These will all create an ethereal look that the stars will accentuate and give viewers a sense of perspective. During the day, you can also plan when and where you’ll take your final shot and ensure you’re getting the composition you want.
On location, if you’re using a fixed tripod, the rotation of the earth will limit the shutter speeds, targets, and focal length you can use on your camera. Typically most Astrophotographers use wide-angle prime lenses (24mm or less) when working from a fixed tripod. But to set up your first initial shot, follow the 500 rule or the 600 rule to minimize unwanted star trails that usually cause distractions in your photos. That is unless you purposely want star trails, and that’s your taste. The 600 rule takes into account the declination of the stars, while the 500 rule does not. But either way, divide the number 500 or 600 by the full-frame equivalent focal length of your lens. And now, you’ll have the longest exposure time (in seconds) you can use before the stars begin to trail. For example, if you’re using a 16mm lens, the longest exposure would be 600÷16= 37.5 seconds. Any longer and the stars will become blurry due to the rotation of the earth. Do know the 600 rule does create slightly longer shutter speeds and exposures. And depending on your focal length, the ideal exposure time may exceed your camera’s built-in shutter speeds.
Lastly, consider getting a SkyWatcher, SkyTracker, or other Equatorial Mount. While you will usually use 20-30 second exposures out in the field, it’s not long enough to gather the light from distant star clusters or galaxies. And if you want pictures of, say, the Milky Way, you’ll need shutter speeds a few minutes in length. The problem here is that the earth continually rotates. And exposures over 30 seconds will cause visibly blurred and streaky stars. The equatorial mount fixes this issue by attaching between your camera and tripod. And it moves the camera in-sync with the earth’s natural rotation. As such, you can use any lens with minute-long exposures without having trailing stars.