Have you ever wondered how they catch still photos of extremely fast meteorites falling down from the sky or how they make wonderful night sky time-lapse and star trails? Well, I have. I always thought about the cameras they used, the lenses, they must have been of sophistication and would definitely be expensive to capture quality meteor and star photos, but that I got wrong. I’ve seen decent astrophotographs taken with bridge cameras and some were even made by a low range SLR, so I was inspired to try it out and see if my GE X500 could do the same thing.
Step 1: Understanding Night Photography
Attempting to capture meteor I assume you already have the basic knowledge of night photography but just to give you an overview, you need to work on perfectly mixing aperture, ISO, and shutter speed.
Wider aperture would make a brighter background, narrow aperture a dimmer background for night photography at least. ISO would mean sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive it gets to absorbing light. Shutter speed on the other hand would mean the exposure time. How long the shutter would stay open to capture the image.
However, astrophotography is totally different. You need to experiment on some set-up until you reach the desired result.
Step 2: Getting Started
Practicing on digital camera is easier than analogue for the very reason that you’ll get the result right away and you can conveniently do your adjustment if you don’t quite like the test shots.
To start with meteor photography, what you need is either a Bridge or a DSLR camera. Point-and-shoot would not actually work because of its range aside from not having continuous shots setting to effectively capture meteors. Since meteors are extremely fast, the approach on successfully capturing them is to set your camera on continuous shots at a particular time interval. However, the catch is meteor photography is very difficult because it is mainly based on pure luck and of course probability, the reason why you need to subscribe to lots of astronomy websites to learn about the latest forecast aside from subscribing to your local weather updates.
I usually visit Sea and Sky, this site is a good source of any celestial events.
Step 3: Camera Specifications (GE X500)
The camera I used is a bridge, GE X500. I wanted to test this camera to its limits especially on how well it can capture stars and other celestial bodies. So far, I've taken decent night photographs and I was rather impressed. And no, I did not use any technical lenses for these astrophotographs, just the camera itself pictures enhanced through image editing software like Photoshop CS4. Anyway, below is the specifications of bridge camera I used, the GE X500.
Resolution: 16 megapixels
Optical Sensor Type: CCD
Total Pixels: 16,500,000 pixels (not bad for starting amateur astrophotography)
Digital Zoom: 6x
Image Stabilizer: Optical (image sensor shift mechanism)
Auto Focus: TTL contrast detection
EXPOSURE AND WHITE BALANCE
Light Sensitivity: ISO 3200, ISO 1600, ISO 800, ISO 400, ISO 200, ISO 100, ISO 80, ISO auto
Exposure Metering: Center-weighted, Spot, AiAE
Exposure Modes: Program, Automatic, Shutter-priority, Manual, Aperture-priority
White Balance: Automatic, Presets, Custom
White Balance Presets: Fluorescent, Incandescent, Cloudy, Daylight, Fluorescent light
Max Shutter Speed: 1/2000 sec
Min Shutter Speed: 30 sec
Exposure Compensation: -2, +2 EV range, in 1/3 EV steps
Type: 15 x zoom lens - 4.9 mm - 73.5 mm - F/3.0-5.2
Focal Length Equivalent to 35 mm Camera: 27 - 405 mm
Focus Adjustment: Automatic
Min Focus Range: 23.6 in
Macro Focus Range: 2 in
Zoom Adjustment: Motorized drive
Step 4: Setting-up Your Camera
It’s always quite pleasing to take night sky pictures when you’re on an elevated area where the stars are somewhat like on eye-level, capturing silhouettes of a mountain maybe? But if it is impossible to be on an elevated area, an open space is also a good spot to take night sky photos.
Your picture would also look more attractive if you include something in them, not just the sky and the stars (something like a house or a mountain or silhouette of a tree so that your image would not look so plain). Of course another important thing is to look for an area free from light pollution.
My set-up for this is around 30 seconds exposure with 8 minutes interval (just an estimated time) so that my camera would last longer because of the current battery type I have. ISO was around 400 because I wanted the sky to be a little brighter. Aperture was set to the widest possible. Shutter speed is varying. Long exposure usually results to noise in the picture but since I have a photo noise reduction software, I set mine to 30 seconds as exposure time. It is also advisable to take some test shots before setting the camera to continuous. Tripod is a must!
To set-up your camera on time-lapse mode (instruction only applicable to GE X5/X500 cameras), follow the steps below:
1) Enter into the photo menu and scroll down to the “Continuous Shot” section.
2) From here, choose “Time Lapse” and then set your desired time interval. Your choices are 30sec, 1min, 5nim, and 10min.
3) Once you have selected your time interval, return to your selected picture mode.
4) “Auto Mode” is recommended, but this feature works in the SCN and Manual Mode. Time Lapse is not available in Portrait Mode or Image Stabilization Mode.
5) Now press the self timer button on the function pad three times until the continuous shot icon appears. Your camera is now in Time Lapse Mode.
Step 5: Noise Reduction
Since I wanted to have a brighter shot of the night sky, setting up the exposure time to 30 seconds utmost would make your picture grainy. To reduce the amount of noise and enhance my night sky picture, I use Photoshop CS4.
Reduce Noise Using Photoshop CS4:
1) Open up your image on Photoshop CS4.
2) Go to Filter > Noise > Reduce Noise.
3) Zoom-in your image to clearly see the effect of your adjustments.
4) Set options:
• Strength - Controls the amount of luminance noise reduction applied to all image channels.
• Preserve Details - Preserves edges and image details such as hair or texture objects. A value of 100 preserves the most image detail, but reduces luminance noise the least. Balance the Strength and Preserve Details controls to finetune noise reduction.
• Reduce Color Noise - Removes random color pixels. A higher value reduces more color noise.
• Sharpen Details - Sharpens the image. Removing noise reduces image sharpness. Use the sharpening control in the dialog box or use one of the other Photoshop sharpening filters later to restore sharpness.
Step 6: Enhancing the Photo
Enhance photo by adjusting the curve on Photoshop. Go to Image > Adjustments > Curves. Try imitating the S-Curve when adjusting. This adjusment always produce a more clearer image.
Step 7: Output Shots
This is the Geminid Meteor shower which happened December last year.
My Record Account:
Cloudy between 22:00-1:00. Waited for about 3 hours to get a clearer sky. Around 2:00, clouds began to disperse and stars are becoming visible. Set the camera with the following settings: Moon was taken earlier in evening 20:00-21:00 with aperture not too narrow around f/5.8, ISO 80, and exposure time of 1/200 (fast enough to capture the moon's detail, this is where I went wrong my first try). About the stars, totally different setting. Aperture is not too wide around f/3.0, ISO 400, exposure time of 30 seconds. Out of 30+ star photos I've captured, I was only able to get 2 decent Geminid photos but it was worth the wait. Activity ended approximately 5 in the morning.