Intro to Astrophotography

Oct 17 2008

Mostly Astronomy! Look at those stars!

My first time shooting the stars was a memorable event. I’ve always been facinated by stars. My childhood room was plastered with constellation, galaxy and astronomy posters. I even had the main constellations replicated in glow-n-the-dark stars on the slanted ceiling above my bed. I was seriously into stars. So much so, that I only alloted a small 6×6″ piece of wall for Matt Damon.

On the last day of the Aperture Nature Photography Workshop, I was elated when Scott Stulberg suggested that we decided to stay long into the night to capture some astronomical pictures. We did have to forgo dinner and general warmth, but it was well worth it.

The group was lead by Scott Stulberg & Martin Gisbourne, an experienced astrophotographer who guided us through the sky and found a perfect spot right below the Milky Way for us to set up our gear.

It’s really important to set up your tripod and camera and find your frame and focus point before it gets dark, because when it’s dark, you can’t see a whole lot through your view finder. I learnt my lesson by finding the edge of a huge tree in a lot of my star pictures after the fact. I think the tree decided to move in my frame just to spite me. Jerk.

Also, if you don’t have a headlamp flashlight, get one. They are essential for early morning or night shoots. Trust me, mounting a camera on a tripod or changing a CF card in the dark is not a good idea. Also, the iPhone flashlight app does not give sufficient light for finding anything really. Tried. Tested. And true. And dress warm, like a Michelin man amount, as it gets a wee bit chilly waiting for those 30s exposures.

As soon as the sky was dark, the group started shooting. It was really tough to get the stars in focus and the photos weren’t coming out the way we wanted. Scott Stulberg and I ended up breaking from the group to do some crazy light painting of the Mormon barns which I”ll talk about in another post. When we came back we ran into legendary Nikon photographer, Dave Black, and his pals shooting some spectacular shots of the stars in a completely different position in the sky. We asked them how they were getting such clear shots. He said that the trick is to set your focus to manual, on infiinite focus, positioning the cursor right in the middle of the ∞. Then we had the magic formula:

Aperture at f/2.8,
Shutter speed at 25-30s,
Manual focus set to infinite focus,
ISO cranked to 3200 to 6400 (for those of us with Nikon D3s).

The only problem was, Scotty’s camera was outta juice and he forgot his spare battery (tsk, tsk) and my lil Xti couldn’t hack it, so Richard generously loaned us his Canon 1D Mark III to get this magical shot.

Most of us were shooting with wide-angle lenses, as wide as a 14mm fisheye, to get in as much sky as possible. But if you’ve got zoom, use it, especially if the moon is out and aboot.

I hope this has given you the inspiration to go out and take your own star shots. If you get any good ones be sure to link them in the comments!

Tags: , , , , , , ,

29 Responses to “Intro to Astrophotography”

  1. Lisa,

    Great shot. I’m surprised you guys were shooting at such high ISOs. I would worry about noise (for those without a Nikon D3 ). I’ve done a few night shots and I’ve always defaulted to ISO 100 to get as little noise as possible, though I’ve not gotten quite the result you have. Since you’re shooting exceptionally long exposure times already, what benefit does a high ISO provide? Just curious if Martin explained.

    Thanks!

  2. If possible take a hair dryer with you, if you are out a long time good chance you will start to get dew on your lens.

    I used to have that trouble when I would take long exposures with my Celestron C8.

  3. When I was over on Hornby Island I did some shots of the various constellations with my Canon XSi, tripod and remote shutter release.

    The photos didn’t turn out that bad actually, even got some good ones of the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia and a couple others.

    I used to do astrophotography with a two 35mm SLR (pentax and olympus) attached to a 90mm Celestron. When you polar align the scope and do a star-trail shot its fun to see the North Star in the middle unmoving and the rings all around it from neighboring stars. I have also been able to take photos of venus, mars, jupiter and saturn.

    Careful when you shoot the moon though, its half the brightness of the sun and if shooting though a telescope make sure you have a moon filter on :)

    The other thing you want to do when out in the middle of the night is refrain from using any white light such as a flashlight or mobile device. Your iris will contract and you wont be able to see stars etc. Use a red light if you can. Your iris doesn’t contract against it and you wont have to worry about your eyes adjusting to the darkness. Light pollution is not your friend! lol

  4. Great shots! I enjoy astrophotography as well. I wanted to tip you onto a great technique I discovered this Spring while photographing the stars.

    You can program the D3 for auto-exposure in fixed 30 second increments. You can also control how many of those exposures you’re going to capture. If you pop in 2 8GB cards you can capture more than 6 hours of night sky in JPEG-HIGH.

    Lastly, download a program called FotoMagico and stitch them together to create a movie of the exposures. The software is relatively cheap (a hundred bucks or so) and the resulting QuickTime movie is very short (about 10MB in my case of shooting for 2 hours).

  5. Lisa, at 30s, do you not get short star trails? or is that just too short of a time for trails to appear? That photo looks great, btw.

  6. ^ Yea, I read an article before and I think they said if you don’t want star trails, stay below 20s…

  7. Hi, thanks for the tips. I’m want to get more involved with astrophotography but just got to find an area where there is less light pollution.

    By the way, how come you don’t have an “add to delicious”. You have a stubble upon link. It’ll make it much easier for some of us. :)

    Thanks,

  8. @Bob — if you decrease the ISO then you have to increase the exposure. Anything longer than 30s and you are gonna lose the sharpness of the stars. Unfortunately, those suckers move. If you want to experiment with star trails then you can lower your ISO and go for a really really long exposure (like an hourish). I haven’t tried this, but check out Dave Black’s blog. He talks all about this.

    Noise is definitely a problem shooting at a high ISO (unless you have a D3 *sigh*), but it’s nothing you can’t get out in post using Noise ninja in PS or as a plug-in in Aperture. I used Aperture’s built in noise reduction and messed around with the black point and exposure to cancel out a lot of the noise.

  9. @Tyler — thanks for those great points! that might be why i couldn’t see anything out of my camera. it was probably from looking at my iPhone in between shots. Martin used only red light. I wondered why and now i know!

    @Christopher — awesome! now if only I can get my hands on a D3. i’ll definitely check out FotoMagico. it looks super cool.

    @Nick & @cl191 — this shot was taken with a 25s exposure. it didn’t have any star trails. I think you are safe up to 30s, but i’ll double check.

    @Davinder — pollution is lame. let’s all recycle a bunch and not drive for a few days so we can shoot the stars! like i said in my post, i have never seen the sky to clear like it was in Jackson Hole.

  10. Man, this really makes me want to get out and take some star photos. Each night when I see the moon I want to grab my camera, but I know that the light pollution would make for a horrible picture.

    That just means I need to get into my car and drive an hour out of town…

  11. Indeed, the whole world needs to recycle correctly.

    If only I could turn off our local power grid for a few nights then there will no huge shopping complexes spewing out light into the sky. Now, that would be awesome!

    Only time I’ve seen the true night sky was coming back late after a film shoot in Santa Cruz. We got out the car at 2 am in the Santa Cruz mountains and there wasn’t a light in sight only the stars shining above. It was amazing! Unfortunately we were only there for one night. hmm, I should try to find that place again.

  12. Also, forgot to mention one of the tips that I learned from astronomy class in college…if you want to see the most stars, don’t go when there’s a full moon, it’s so bright that it will make the dimmer stars hard to see. If you can’t pick a different night, at least do it in the early or late night (like 4ish am) since the full moon will “peak” at midnight.

  13. The infinity point on the dial isn’t always accurate. If you have a camera with live view & live view magnification though, you can manually set the focus on a star.

  14. This is such a great shot, Lisa!!! You should try and do some stuff like this

    http://www.rc-astro.com/

  15. [...] our star shoot at the Aperture Nature Photography Workshop, Scott Stulberg pointed out a beautiful Mormon barn and [...]

  16. [...] our star shoot at the Aperture Nature Photography Workshop, Scott Stulberg pointed out a beautiful Mormon barn and [...]

  17. [...] our star shoot at the Aperture Nature Photography Workshop, Scott Stulberg pointed out a beautiful Mormon barn and [...]

  18. This is one I took in Central Alberta, around 14+ minutes using a remote control. I had just bought the 50MM F1.8 lens to get this. Try to aim for Polaris and the stars will move around it.. Problem is in Alberta there are not a lot of days to try this and I try to get them when there is no moon and travel as far away from any city as I can. We do have an area around an hour away that is designated light free.. I will be going there this year for sure.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/woodrowjackson/2833208704/

  19. That’s a really nice photo of the night sky. I’ve always been interested in Astronomy myself. When I was a teenager, I built an 8″ reflecting telescope. One of these days, I’d like to get a really nice telescope like a Meade and try my hand at Astrophotography.

    Thanks for sharing your talent and love for photography with the rest of us. I really enjoy your site.

  20. Amazing shot!

    Can you do this with a CANON EOS 450D too?
    I’d love to try this one day!

  21. Thanks, Lisa! I just got a Canon T1i and was thinking of taking some moon/star pictures when it clears up. I have some previous SLR experience, but have only shot a few night shots. Now I at least know where to start to get a hopefully great photo. Your photo is beautiful!

  22. Great post! I remember my first time shooting the milky way as well. It was earlier this year at Yellowstone and I had a blast doing it.

    Here’s what I was able to get! http://flic.kr/p/8ww23x

  23. Great shot Lisa. I’m just getting into astrophotography. It is amazing how much deeper into the sky you can see. On my first try I also did a little light painting with a flashlight on the surrounding trees.
    Here is one image : http://bit.ly/fBo1Uy

  24. With star photography on a fixed tripod, the length of time that you expose before getting star trails is dependent on the focal length of the system and the altitude that you are aiming at. I’ve had my best results shooting with a lens that gives you about 35mm. I use f1.8 and an ISO of 1600. Remember, batteries don’t work as well in the cold, so bring extras.

  25. AWESOME shot, congrats! Love the glowing area. :D
    Cheers!

  26. I wonder what kind of lens did you guys use to shoot it. a 18mm-55mm can do it? It doesn’t look like you used a long focal length lens, so I could say a 18mm could do the trick :)

  27. What a beautiful picture! I’ve never tried anything like this, but thanks for the detailed instructions. I might attempt it.

Leave a Reply