Astrophotography can be very daunting for beginners, especially when you’re not sure where to start.
Do I need a telescope? Which one should I take? Which camera do I need? These are all good questions to ask yourself.
You need to be comfortable with your camera and its features, so one particular brand isn’t right for everyone. Take some time to try different models if you can, as obviously not all will give the same result. Making a list of what you want to achieve with your images will give you a good idea of what features you need. This will help you narrow down the camera brand.
However, you can capture stunning starscape shots like this one below without using a telescope.
Professional photographer Andrew Whyte has been taking stunning astrophotography shots like this for years. He also masters the art of “merging light” in his shots through the use of long exposures.
The key to getting a stunning starry night image is obviously darkness and a camera with a high ISO potential. Andrew gave us a guide on how to shoot in the dark and get great results.
Wherever you are in the UK there are plenty of dark sky sites to check out at the Dark Sky Discovery site. If you’re in a light polluted area like London, try to find an area that’s as dark as possible, maybe a park you can access or somewhere away from streetlights.
We ventured to the Isle of Man where there are 26 dark sky sites armed with a Sony A7 which Andrew says offers the best quality for his astro images: “There is almost nothing on the market that comes with the performance of the sensor is comparable on the A7s, possibly a newer Nikon model, but at almost £5,000 it’s more than twice the price. The A7s has a phenomenal ISO range of 50-409600 with extremely low noise.
Aside from your camera, here are a few other things you will definitely need before you start shooting:
A stable tripod – a must for long exposures
A good torch – This will help you find a focus point
batteries – in case your flashlight dies
Some very warm clothing or lots and lots of layers – especially in winter it gets VERY cold
A bottle with something hot – is an added plus and will definitely help your wait time between shots and warm you up
As a beginner, there are bound to be some hiccups, not to mention that the weather plays a big part in how your pictures end up. So be patient and keep trying.
It is true that many of you may not be as fortunate to have a professional photographer to help you as we have. Andrew answers some key questions about how to work around issues that first-time visitors may encounter and some tips for hitting startrails.
Right: First Stop – Foxdale Mine, Isle of Man, Left: Second Stop – A run down house in Langness, Isle of Man
We were lucky to get some good shots considering there was quite a bit of cloud cover in some places so it’s worth checking the weather forecast before preparing to leave.
Astrophotography for beginners
We had a few hiccups initially setting it up, if you’re a beginner how would you avoid these?
“As a beginner it will always take some time to get used to the camera and lens combinations if you are unfamiliar with them – it always helps when a beginner prefers to get used to their camera in daylight rather than on a pitch black, windswept hillside!
In general, the main problems that novice night/astrophotographers face are focusing in the dark, getting a sharp shot, and getting the exposure right.
These can be overcome by using a flashlight to help focus, or even setting it up while there is still some residual light – it can make such a big difference. Tripod stability and in-camera/lens-based image stabilization/vibration reduction features are the key factors that contribute to a sharp image. Make sure the tripod is firmly locked in each plane of motion and turn all IS/VR settings completely off for best results. Whenever possible, use a cable/remote release or timer to trigger the camera to avoid bumping and destabilizing at the start of an exposure. Finding the right exposure gets easier with experience, but depends on the look and feel the photographer is trying to achieve, so best done by referencing the preview screen on a shot-by-shot basis. However, thanks to the strengths of the sensor, the Sony A7s’ Live View system gives a good idea of what the final shot will look like before it’s taken. Neither the Canon nor Nikon live view systems I’ve used performed as well.”
If you live in a city where there is light pollution, what tips can you offer to get the best results?
“Light pollution will be your biggest challenge, but air quality also plays a role. To overcome both, head to some of London’s parks, as these tend to be quieter, darker spots: Regents Park regularly hosts an astronomy gathering, while Greenwich, Clapham Common and Primrose Hill all have expansive views of the sky on a clear night Offer. They will appear in the foreground, so these locations are arguably better suited to deeper spaces through a scope than widefield. Barring widespread power outages, it’s unlikely you’ll ever get a glimpse of the Milky Way from even the darkest places in London, but it’s possible to shoot startrails around the capital.
What are the advantages of using this camera on a telescope?
“As I understand the technique of using a telescope-mounted camera, there are two distinct advantages to using the A7s as an exceptional low-light camera. First, the more general Astro benefit of producing very clean files with low noise and generous dynamic range, even at higher ISOs. Dynamic range is used to describe the difference between the lightest and darkest areas of an image; The A7s captures an above-average amount of detail between these two points, so the final image is smoother and offers more latitude for editing.
Second, one of the most important things you’re trying to do, especially when shooting through a telescope for deep space astrophotography, is to counteract the motion of the stars caused by the Earth’s rotation – this is accomplished by using an exposure as short as possible (but record the same recording many times and then “stack” them). Because the A7s has exceptional light-gathering abilities, it can collect the cleanest files in the shortest amount of time.’
What are the best settings when trying to hit startrails?
“First of all, startrails can be created in many more places than the Milky Way. You still want to start with a wide aperture (e.g. f/2.8) and a medium ISO range (maybe 400). Try a 15 second test recording at these settings. If it’s too dark just increase the ISO to 800 and repeat the process with a 15 second test. If the original frame was too light, reduce the ISO to 200 and repeat the process. Leave the aperture at f/2.8, but adjust ISO (min 200, max 1600) and then shutter speed (min 8 seconds, max 30 seconds) until you find the right exposure settings. Lock the shutter with a cable release so it takes a series of pictures. You can then batch edit and stack these on a computer. StarStaX is a great, free, multi-platform program for creating a single startrail image from a series of JPGs.’
For more work by Andrew Whyte visit www.longexposures.co.uk, Twitter and Flickr sites.
Information on the Sony A7s can be found here.
Astrophotography by Andrew Whyte