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Great Astrophotography - A How-To Guide

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Picture of Great Astrophotography - A How-To Guide
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Note: These photos were taken without a telescope, just a camera on a tripod.

Many of us have looked up into the night sky in a particularly dark place and thought, "This is incredible! I really wish I could take a picture!" or we've seen others' photos of the stars and the Milky Way and wondered how on earth they got such incredible images. As it turns out, it really isn't as hard as you might think. This guide will teach you how to plan your shoot like a pro.

Photographs of the night sky fall into a peculiar category of technical photography, where the final image is dependent on planning and knowledge more than looking through the viewfinder and visualizing what you want the image to look like. Since we can't really see our target through the viewfinder, and some aspects of the final image may not even be visible to the naked eye, we need to do a little research. You can't expect astrophotos to look the way you want without planning any more than you can take a sunset photo in the middle of the day. For this, we will need some software to visualize the night sky in advance, and it is very helpful if this software can simulate viewing conditions. I recommend an easy to learn, free, open source, multi-platform program called Stellarium, which is used in planetariums and by astronomers around the world. For field use, you might want to make sure you have Google Sky Map installed on your Android device, or a similar app on your iPad, iPhone or other device. If you still don't have a tablet or smartphone or anything, you can print out star charts for the time you'll be shooting and bring a compass with you. For a simple map, you can go to Tools > Screenshots > Invert Colors in Stellarium and print the screenshots you need (invert to background is white) or you can use more advanced star charting software. You'll only need charts or maps if you really want to plan things to the last detail or photograph a particular night sky object however.
 
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dfoott7 months ago
well i finally know why my 30 second exposures take another 30 seconds to process... long exposure Noise Reduction. this realisation will save me so much time haha
FletchNZ1 year ago
Great article! I am on a budget too, only an 1100D, but I do have a 50mm 1.8 lens. I thought that wide angle was supposed to be better though? In any case, I'm going to give it another try - I think I used the 18-55mm kit lens at 18mm the first time I tried. WHat settings do you suggest for the 50mm?
timnitro1 year ago
if i take 30 pictures, wont the stars move over time? instead of star trails il have many weird pictures
canucksgirl2 years ago
Wow! Great job. Amazing amount of information. I will definitely be trying this out in the future. Have always wanted to capture starry skies but didn't know how.

Do you have any recommendations for someone looking at getting a new DSLR camera (novice user) that will work for these kind of images (and general photography) and not break the bank?
GuiltyPixel (author)  canucksgirl2 years ago
Your best bet for a versatile camera that won't kill your wallet and will be flexible enough to do anything else you want would be the Canon 500D. You can grab one for less than $500 USD these days. It has relatively low noise, great sensitivity, pro features (arranged in an easy format), and accepts all EOS lenses. The only problem with the medium-high end cameras is they use a smaller sensor which means less contrast and clarity compared to their big brothers. But, that being said, I do ok with a 400D myself. You can see my work at my gallery, all shot on a 400D just like the images in this instructable.  The 500D gets a little better image quality than mine and has the convenience of Live View, where the rear LCD displays in realtime like a viewfinder, and it will shoot video.  Shooting video with DSLR lenses is really fun and you can get very creative with it.

Nikon makes great cameras, and arguably better lenses, but I am not a Nikon shooter so I can't advise you on that.

Your first lens included in the 500D kit is an 18-55mm zoom but you'll want to get something a little faster (meaning more light collection capability, a lower f/ number) like a Canon 50mm EF 50mm f/1.8 (about $100)  It's one of the most versatile lenses ever made and is great in low light, portraits, some landscapes, and astrophotography.  It's something I need to grab myself and should have bought when I had the chance, but being a broke student now I can only wish.

I hope this helps.  Thanks for reading and commenting.
I have a 400D with a 28-200mm lens with a uv filter and the 18-55mm lens too. How do you get the photos to turn out how they are? I am also a broke student and my website is www.aidanjg.webs.com/ :)
Thank you so much for the detailed and quick reply. Much appreciated. I find that navigating through all the options a bit mind boggling, but your information makes perfect sense. (That and you're not a salesman looking for commission.)

I looked at your gallery, you have some amazing images. I hope that one day soon I will have something half as worthy to show.

God only knows that I live in one of the richest areas for photo ops. (South western Canada). When I visit my family (further into the interior of B.C.) I can see with the naked eye millions more stars than what the light-polluted miss out on.

Aside from the starry night photo's, I hope to have some success with photographing the Northern Lights (which we can see from time to time in the south).

Thanks again for all the time you put into this ible. :)
GuiltyPixel (author)  canucksgirl2 years ago
My pleasure. You're very lucky to be where you are. Here in Texas, I'm a bit limited on photo targets for most things, since our weather is so bland and I'm not into shooting urban or vintage/retro stuff. At least he have some of the few remaining dark skies in the US. I wish you the best, and please share your results once you are able to. You can always send a message if you need specific help.
angelabchua2 years ago
I recently got my boyfriend a dobsonian telescope and we have been wanting to try and take some photos. I will definitely send this over to him to look over!

Thanks!
GuiltyPixel (author)  angelabchua2 years ago
I just noticed you can get an Orion GoTo mount for dobs reasonably priced.. Now I'm curious, if you do take any pics through the scope, let me know :)
GuiltyPixel (author)  angelabchua2 years ago
I'm sure you'll have a lot of fun. Dobs are great for naked eye views, but a little difficult to use for photography without a motorized mount and some tweaking.

If you go out and get any photos, be sure to share them here, or on my blog guiltypixel.com

Thanks for reading, be sure to rate and share.
GuiltyPixel (author) 2 years ago
PKM2 years ago
"Ideal conditions for astrophotography ... arid, no cloud cover and little water vapor ... with no major light sources for 10 miles. This sounds almost impossible"

It is impossible if you live in the UK! I've been working on an Instructable covering the same topic for a while but in nowhere near as much detail as you, I didn't even think about weather radar.

What sort of ISO/exposure time/zoom/number of shots do you need to get that nebula? I've got some ok results with starfields, but nothing that impressive ._.
GuiltyPixel (author)  PKM2 years ago
I'm very sorry. I understand your situation in the UK, they've done nothing to protect the integrity of the night sky there and the building density is so high... It is quite sad really.

For the image of the Orion Nebula, that was only 6 images, 10 seconds exposure each, at ISO 1600 on a Canon 400D at 55mm f/4 I believe. I used something like 20 dark frames to reduce noise. I didn't expect anything, they were just test shots. I tried to get better ones last week but the weather ruined that. As soon as I spot a dry patch on the satellite, I'll grab some better images.

If only I had some fast glass like the ubiquitous Canon 50mm f/1.4 prime.... I could grab some really beautiful star shots. Good luck, it's really depressing being locked in a place where you have no dark skies, I've been there, but if you get a chance to travel a little, check the light pollution maps first :)
PKM GuiltyPixel2 years ago
Actually the light pollution isn't so bad- I live in a city but on the edge of the fens, a large area of reclaimed swamp with no major towns so I can get away from the worst of it if I drive a little.  I was more talking about the cloud cover and water vapour, it's been 100% overcast and intermittently foggy for about a week, and truly clear nights are sadly rare. 

If you drive far enough you can get away from towns but there's no way to drive away from British weather!
sunshiine2 years ago
Don't see where to vote. I will go to the contest page and vote there.
please go to the final step(last page), thats when you can vote :)
Cheers!
sunshiine2 years ago
Nice Instructable! I thought you had to have a special camera for taking pictures like this! I will vote on this and I wish you the best . It is truly a science project that is well deserved for recognition. Thanks for sharing!
Sunshiine
That is amazing. Thanks for this. I hope to give it a try.
GuiltyPixel (author)  matt.e.jenkins2 years ago
You're welcome, I'm glad you liked it. Good luck with your photos.

Remember to rate it, and share it!