I was always fascinated by space when I was younger and I still remember binge watching Wonders of the Solar System with Brian Cox, after I had noticed my dad watching it.
Many nights were spent sitting in the middle of a quiet road with my friends just staring at the stars, trying to fathom what it was we were looking at.
It was almost by accident that I came into taking pictures of the stars as I had bought my DSLR with the intent of only using it for video. I knew nothing about photography at the time or even that my camera could capture the stars, but I remember heading into my friends’ back garden and laying the camera down on the ground pointing up at the night sky. After a 30 second exposure, I ran back inside to show everyone this somewhat black picture, but when I zoomed in I saw hundreds of white dots, more than any human eye could see.
It blew my mind!
From then on I experimented further, mostly with star timelapses as my mind was still fixated on creating video. Through timelapse, I found a new love for photography that I had barely even cared for in the past.
Suddenly, I was striving for the perfect cloudless Milky Way shot towering above some landmark on the Island, something that could transpose the feelings that I had towards the night sky in a single shot and hopefully make others look up at the night sky, once in a while.
These days my set up consists of a Canon 6D camera and a Samyang 14mm f/2.8 lens, both sat on a sturdy Manfrotto tripod with a ball head mount.
While the Canon 6D is somewhat pricey, I used to use a Canon 60D and a lot of my early pictures were actually captured with it (even that very first one).
Cheaper models are fully capable of taking night sky pictures to an extent, they just won’t be as bright/clear. My point being, you don’t have to break the bank in order to take night sky pictures, and you’re better off starting small to test the waters, and if it’s something you really get into then you can take the plunge.
The lens on the other hand, it’s best to shoot with a wide angle lens and keep the aperture low so it can let in more light during the exposure. About f/2.8 is good as anything lower starts, to give your pictures a vignette effect and a less sharp image, and anything higher will let less light in.
Then there’s obviously the other bits you can invest in, like a good camera bag, intervalometer/remote (for taking pictures without nudging the camera), warm clothing, head torch, all very helpful when shooting in the dark!
A vital part of astrophotography for me is a simple phone app, not necessary of course if you don’t have a smartphone as a lot of the planning can be done by other means, but pretty much all of my planning for astrophotography, timelapses or just photography in general is done through an app called PhotoPills.
It can take some time getting to know how to navigate the app but once you get to grips with it you’ll be able to see exactly when the sun rises/sets, when the sky is at it’s darkest, when the moon rises/sets, and where the Milky Way will be facing at any given time, even down to the exact place you plan on shooting from.
The old school method, and one I used a lot at first, is simply Google maps and a program called Stellarium (which alone is a cool program to check out).
So once I’ve planned my shot, where I’m going to shoot and what time I plan to shoot at, I’ll think about the settings I want to use out in the field.
For the type of astrophotography I shoot, which is wide field astrophotography (wide angle lens images), the general settings I’ll use on a moonless clear night are 30 second shutter speed, aperture 2.8, ISO 6400 and a white balance of 3200k.
At first I’d say it’s best to take a few shots at different ISO values, for example 6400, 4000, 3200, 1600, as some cameras can create more noise at a higher ISO (grain like texture) than others and taking a few snaps at different values means you can evaluate them later on a computer to see what works best for you.
I’ll also always shoot in RAW, meaning I can always get the most out of the picture when it comes to editing it. Once I have a picture of the sky I’m happy with, I’ll assess whether the foreground in the framing needs any more light, and if it does I’ll generally take a 2nd shot on bulb mode with an exposure of about 300 seconds and an ISO of 1600, and then blend them together in Photoshop.
To do this, you’ll need something to trigger your shutter remotely (I use an intervalometer) as holding down the shutter button for 300 seconds will likely shake the camera a lot.
It’s important of course, to get a framing you’re happy with for the shot before committing to it. Any time I set up a shot, I’ll take a test shot first and then figure out what does and doesn’t work.
This can take time, and the more time that goes by the more the Earth spins moving the Milky Way in your shot. So planning and time management is usually key to getting a good shot of the Milky Way.
Niarbyl Meet Up
Back in November, I held an astrophotography meet up at Niarbyl to share some of these pointers with any photographers who wanted to learn more about astro-shooting.
I was quite surprised by the turnout and it was great to see so many people on the Island embracing astrophotography, so thanks to anyone who made it out for that!
It was also great to see some seasoned photographers had made it out for the night and were giving a few pointers here and there, as well as others who had come along simply just to stargaze.
Below I’ve highlighted some of the great pictures taken on the night, from a whole range of different cameras.
Caitlin Gelder: Nikon D3200 at 18mm (Shutter 30secs, f/5.6, ISO 1800)
Nick Hunt: Nikon D5300 at 14mm (Shutter 30secs, f/3.5, ISO 3200)
Mike Radcliffe: Nikon D810 at 19mm (Shutter 10secs, f/2.8, ISO 3200)
Dan Chambers (Panorama of 9 images stitched in Lightroom): Nikon D750 at 29mm (Shutter 30secs, f/3.8, ISO 4000)
And here’s one I captured, processed through Lightroom only: Canon 6D at 14mm (Shutter 30secs, f/2.8, ISO 6400)
For details on any future meet-ups/workshops you can follow me on Facebook here
Filmmaker / Astrophotographer