Getting into astrophotography can be done relatively inexpensively if you already have a DSLR camera and a telescope on a good equatorial mounting.
If you know how to accurately polar align the mount, and don’t mind pressing the shutter button manually every 5 minutes, you would only need a T-mount and 2-inch adapter to hook the camera up to the telescope and start shooting.
You don’t absolutely need everything listed here, but these accessories will make your life much easier.
- Invest in a tripod
First and foremost, a tripod is a must-have for astrophotography and nighttime landscapes. Even the slightest bit of movement can cause enough instability to make the stars in your photo blur or to obscure the landscape.
It’s impossible to remain completely still for seconds or minutes on end and, while a strategically placed wall can replace a tripod in a pinch, a tripod is the most portable and customizable way to ensure a completely uninterrupted night photo.
Find a high-quality wide-angle lens
Your lens can make or break an otherwise perfect astrophoto or night landscape. A wide-angle lens has a large field of view. In other words, it allows you to frame more of your subject like the Milky Way, a planet, or the night sky at large.
Your field of view is determined by your lens’s focal length, as illustrated in the image above. Two simple rules can help you understand the importance of your lens’s focal length:
The shorter the focal length of your lens, the more you can fit into your frame.
The longer the focal length the more sensitive the sensor is to the movement of the earth and the harder it is to get clear star photos.
For astrophotography and night landscapes, look for something that offers a focal length of 35mm or less. The smaller the focal length, the less sensitive your camera’s light sensor will be to the movement of the earth. For ultimate versatility, choose a lens with a focal length range of at least as wide as 15-32mm.
Utilize your camera’s timer or invest in a remote
Timers and remotes aren’t just fancy gadgets for family photos. Once you’ve got your photo framed, focused, and ready to go, setting the timer on your camera or using a remote shutter release totally removes the human element from the photo and makes it less likely that camera shaking or movement will cause blurs and light trails in your photo.
Lens hoods keep unwanted light away
Your camera’s light sensor will be especially sensitive to all sources of light when the world around you is dark. To mitigate issues like lens flare, invest in a lens hood. These block light from outside your field of view so that light doesn’t compromise your photograph.
Use filters to help stars stand out in your image
Generally speaking, the night is not the time to employ filters. Any filter will make it harder for light to reach your sensor, which means you’ll need longer exposure times to compensate and might set yourself up for light and star trail disasters. However, there are a couple that can be a boon when you’re after very specific effects.
A fog filter is typically used to create a mysterious, ominous, or otherwise dramatic effect in landscape photography. At night, however, fog filters can sometimes make stars appear larger, which makes it easier for viewers to pick out the constellation or stars in your image.
When you’re taking a photo that includes stars as the only source of light in the frame, star filters create a “pointed” effect on the stars, making them appear pronounced and luminous like in the image below. Of course, you can use the filter even when the moon or artificial lights are present in your frame as long as you accept that they, too, may take on the appearance of a pointed star.
You might think, “of course I’ll need a flashlight to see in the dark,” but that’s not their only purpose in night photography. If you’re using a tripod and a remote shutter release, you can also use a flashlight to illuminate a specific focal element in extremely low-light situations. If you need your hands free to operate the camera, lay the flashlight on a stable surface and point it toward your focal element.
Portable studio or strobe lights
The more light you need, the larger and more powerful the flashlight will need to be. To illuminate larger areas of darkness, consider battery-powered portable studio or strobe lights.
The more photos you take, the quicker your camera’s battery will run out. However, it’s also true that long exposures will drain batteries more quickly. Bring at least one extra battery to avoid a mid-shoot shutdown.
Choosing the “right” camera for astrophotography
If you’re reading this guide, you’re probably wondering if your current camera (or your dream camera) will do the trick for the shots you want to capture. The camera settings available to you are much more important than the particular camera you choose.
Full frame DSLR cameras
However, some camera types are better than others at making your job easier. Generally speaking, full frame DSLR cameras are the ones that make it easiest to get a satisfactory photograph at night.
That’s because they have larger sensors and larger pixels, so they tend to create images with less noise and better image quality. Both of these issues are important in long exposure photography and in star photography in particular.
However, if you’ve never used a full frame camera for nighttime photography, you won’t feel limited if you go for a more compact and budget-friendly micro four thirds or APS-C camera. Full frame cameras are simply designed for the needs of a professional photographer and, as such, tend to offer the highest possible image quality and the widest range of options in their class.
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