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A guide to photographing the stars and beyond!

Recently I have been out in the night photographing the planets, stars and objects further out in the universe as there has been a few events happening over the last few months. With this comes a fair amount of experimenting to get the correct exposure and the results I am looking for.

Below I am going to talk about how to go about the results I have achieved so you can do the same, although the equipment you maybe using maybe different most of the methods remain the same providing you are using a DSLR and are at least partly familiar with using manual.

To start off you'll need a few things:

  • Coat or two to keep you warm.
  • Something to kneel/sit/lie on while you look into the stars.
  • Sturdy tripod that can hold the weight of your camera.
  • DSLR camera.
  • Wide or telephoto lens.
  • Cable remote to trigger your camera.
  • An app on your phone so you can find your way through the stars.

Setting up your camera:

There are different things in the night sky that you might want to photograph, here's how I have my camera setup to get these specific objects or stars. Setting your camera to RAW and Auto white balance first, then using the setting below as a guide. If you are using short exposures then it's good to use image stabilisation for anything longer than 2.0 seconds it's a good idea to turn it off.

Shooting Stars and the Milky Way:

Recently it's been the Perseid meteor shower, which has been a real inspiration to watch as you don't get to see small fireballs in the sky that often.  Using a very wide lens at 30.0 seconds there isn't a noticeable move of stars, if you were using a lens at 20mm you may see double the movement so your shutter would be closer to 15.0 seconds. I used my remote to automatically fire the shutter again after every 30.0 seconds so I didn't miss any meteors.

I've set my camera up to expose for 30.0 seconds at f/3.5, ISO 2000 using a 10mm lens to capture the Perseid meteor shower.

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Planets

As our solar system objects are moving so fast around the sun and while the earth is also moving you'll need a much faster shutter speed and a much longer lens such as a 200mm or 400mm to get close enough to see some if any detail of the planet. With a lens using image stabilisation I am shooting at 1/60th of a second, while this might appear slow in normal conditions it's pretty fast at night. Because the planets are bright objects in the sky a large aperture of f/2.8 or f/4.0 can't be used as too much light will come though your lens and you'll just get a highlighted planet.

Setting my camera up at 1/60th sec, f/8.0, ISO 3200 to capture Saturn and it's ring, which is on average 1.43 billion kilometres away!

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The Moon

A much closer object to our home it's far brighter than any thing else you'll see. The ideal time I have found to take photos of the moon is before it's fully dark as your camera will see contrast different to yourself. With a mid dark sky you'll be able to get a far better result than if it was fully black.

There's the moon using 1/320th sec, f/4.5, ISO 100 on a 200mm lens.

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Here another using 1/125th sec, f/8.0, ISO 500 on a 400mm lens.

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Galaxies and Nebulas

Not so long ago I stumbled upon a fraction of light and found it to be the Orion Nebula which was an exciting find! Without the use of a tripod to provide me with an easy setup I went to find a stone on Kendal Castle that faced the correct way, after a bit of playing with settings I captured the following below.

This is my current best photograph of the Andromeda Galaxy which is 2.5 million light-years. Taken using a 400mm lens, 15.0 sec, f/5.6, ISO 2500. You can see the size of the disk in this photo, the zoom effect is a distraction so when it's not cloudy again I'll get you a better photograph with these settings.

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Using a long lens as the Orion Nebula is 1,344 light years away from earth... 1.0 sec, f/2.8, ISO 2000 on a long lens.

Comets

Comets are like nebulas, there's hidden details to be seen that you can capture with a bit of time. I've set my camera up for a fairly short shutter speed but letting in as much light as possible!

Try these settings, 2.0 sec, f/2.8, ISO 2500 on a long lens. Maybe 4 or 5 sec if your lens only goes to f/5.6 or similar.

Star Trails

Shooting star trails isn't one of the things I often do as it's not a good temperature around here when I decide to do it. I'll do more in the future, here's one that I shot in 2006.

Taken at 70 minuets at f/4.0, ISO 100 on a 20mm lens. This photo has been post-processed a bit as it's initially was quite bright.

Shooting

Making sure your camera is on a study tripod, you may need to get out your mobile device to find out exactly where you should be pointing your lens if the object is not visible to the naked eye. Your camera may interfere with the compass on your device so be careful of that. Once setup on the tripod make sure you have your wired remote attached so won't need to move the camera. If you don't have a remote, you can always use the self timer.

One of the most important things is to find a place that you can shoot from thats either far away from any street lights or a place that is in shadow of all street lights. The latter being so you can see the stars too!

Post Processing

Processing your RAW photographs in photoshop or lightroom you can play with the contrast, clarity, blacks and exposure to get how you feel the photograph should look.

Photographing in RAW you can change the white balance to be what you think it should have been, if you are in lightroom then clicking auto might set it up for you.

I feel that the post processing part of photograph is important, this point in the process make the image look how you want it to look and more importantly can bring out more detail or emphasise what you wanting the viewer to see.

Exporting

These days the likes of facebook, twitter and other social networks compress photographs so all those small details in the night sky get lost. There's a trick to this were you can export as a .PNG instead of a .JPG. PNG is lossless and facebook supports it, get your photos of the night sky shown as best as they can be!

Phew! I hope you have learned something useful by reading over a thousand words, comment below and let me know. Thank you.

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