How to: Astrophotography / by Ricardo Seah

Astrophotography 101

I often get asked how to take photos of the amazing night sky filled with countless stars. The stars have to be one of my most favourite subjects to photograph and to share my passion for astrophotography I have put together this guide for you. It's a little long but you'll come to realise that astrophotography is simpler than you think, just follow along and you'll be shooting like a pro in no time! Here's everything you need to know about shooting the stars!


What you will need:

  • A camera! (one where you can adjust settings manually like a DSLR) 

  • A tripod (a solid one and not that cheap plastic one the store threw in as a deal)

  • A torchlight or headlamp with a red-light setting (you are going to want red light in the dark as this helps to protect your night adapted vision.. trust me, I studied this in psychology 101)

  • Preferably a wide angle lens with a wide aperture / low f/stop number (the lower the f/stop number the better. So like an aperture of f/2.8 is good, f/1.8 is better and f/1.4 is awesome) 

  • A remote shutter release/shutter release cable (this isn't absolutely necessary but will make your life easier)

Note: All my recommendations for the gear listed above can be found on my gear page.

Optional stuff to bring:

  • A human. Believe it or not these can provide good company especially in places where its really dark and wildlife might be around. (I suggest bringing a friend, preferably one who isn't afraid of the dark.)

  • Food/snacks & enough water/tea/coffee to last you the night out

  • A portable stool/foldable chair unless you want to be like me and just lie on the ground

  • Some form of communication device incase you get lost or find yourself in trouble (you will likely be in a dark location far from civilisation and thus bringing a phone with enough juice is a good idea)

  • A good playlist of songs to keep you going through the night such as my Astrophotography playlist on Spotify

  • Gaffer tape (pretty random but I always have some in my camera bag.. this is to help you hold focus on your lens once you've found the sweet spot in manual focus)

Let's get to it!

Now that you're all gear up and ready to go you will have to... do some research :/ 
Do your research!!! 

1. Figure out which night is best suited for your astrophotography adventure. You'll want:

  • A night with little to no clouds at all (clouds usually catch on to any available light in the environment and that shows up in shots)

  • Little to no visible moon (i.e. shoot when its a new moon or before the moon rises) you can check a calendar that shows moon phases 

2. Figure out which location is best suited for astrophotography

  • A location with little to no light pollution (i.e. get away from the city! You want complete darkness) a good resource to find the right spot is the dark sky finder

3. Plan your route in advance

  • The best spots are often far away and might not be easily accessible and might not have good signal for your google maps to operate 

Settings

Now that you've got the right gear, found the right night and the best spot.. lets get to the technical side of things! Here are the settings you'll need to take note of:

Settings before you head out and shoot

  1. Make sure you set your focus to infinity, this is best done during the day and you can do this by autofocusing on something in the distance taping the focus ring with some gaffer tape and then switching to manual focus.

  2. Turn off any "long exposure noise reduction" settings your camera might have (take a look at your camera manual if you're not sure about this) 

  3. Turn your LCD brightness to the lowest possible setting take a look at your camera manual if you're not sure about this) 

  4. Shoot in RAW file format instead of JPEG. This is not necessary but is recommended especially if you want to edit your images. (Even though I don't personally like to edit much or use Photoshop, I still do some minor adjustments in Lightroom, so I recommend shooting in RAW)

Settings when you are out on location/for the shoot

  • Use your widest aperture/lowest f/stop number (this will allow for more light to hit the sensor)

  • Use the 500 rule to calculate your shutter speed (Take 500 divided by your focal length that you are shooting at to get the right shutter speed. This will help to prevent any star trailing in your shot) 

    • Ok example time: If I'm shooting with a 24-70mm lens and I set my focus length to 24mm for the shot, what should my shutter speed be?

    • Answer: 500 รท 24 = 20.833333 We take this result and round it down to the closest shutter speed which then gives us a shutter speed of 20 seconds

  • ISO is dependent on camera model, some will require higher ISO settings than others to get a well exposed shot. I suggest starting with ISO 1600 and working your way up till you get a well exposed image.

What to do?

Now that you have the gear, the right time, the right location, the right settings, it's finally time to shoot! (Own time, own target.. Carry on! #singaporeaninsidejoke)

Using the red light setting on your headlamp, locate the perfect spot where you can see a good portion of the sky while being able to include some elements that inform the viewer of the environment/scene (such as a mountain or some trees) this helps to put the shot into perspective and will look much better than a plain shot of the sky alone.

Set up your camera and remote shutter release on your tripod making sure that all legs of the tripod are secure (so your tripod doesn't slip or fall). 

Using the settings mentioned above take a shot. If you don't have a remote shutter release then set your camera on a 2 second timer to take shots so as to avoid vibrations caused by pressing down on the shutter button. If the image turns out too dark then adjust to a higher ISO setting till you get the perfect shot.

If you follow all these steps listed above you should get something similar to this:

Note: As you can see there is some warm light coming in from the left side of the photograph and that is light pollution coming from a town far far away in the distance (this just demonstrates that the further away you are from any city/town/street lights the better). 

I hope you found this guide helpful. Please give this post a like if you found it useful and share it with friends and family. And don't forget to follow me on Instagram for my latest shots!

Look at you... You're now shooting like a pro! Get out there and keep shooting those shooting stars!