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Astrophotography 101 – A Guide to Capturing the Stars

The experience of standing under the stars, in the absence of all artificial light, is something that can bring a multitude of emotion. I’ve realized that experience often comes in waves and is often different from person to person. It can be a moment of peace or excitement. If we allow ourselves to slow down and to really take it all in, it can be both. I have well over 10 years under my belt of heading out to take photos of the stars and I still go through those same feelings each time. I experience excitement as I watch the stars one by one, a feeling of peacefulness and appreciation for where I am, and eventually, I circle back to excitement as I begin capturing a small part of that feeling. Part of what I love about sharing images of the night sky is the possibility that someone else will head out under the stars and have a similar experience of their own. It can be in an entirely different part of the world and completely separate, but knowing that someone else got to feel a part of something that I love is extremely special to me. Being out there and capturing a photo of your own is such a wonderful feeling that I want as many people as possible to have their own moment under the stars.

While you can’t always just head out, point your camera at the sky and come back with a great photo, the barrier to entry has gotten much lower over the last few years. Pair that with the proper planning and skills and the chance of coming home with a photo you’re excited about is even higher.

Guideline for Gear

As camera technology continues to improve, the gear needed to take a great photo of the stars has definitely become more accessible. Still, we’re asking whatever piece of equipment that we’re using, our camera or even our phone, to capture as much light in the dark as possible. So, it’s important to make sure you’re well prepared. 

Camera Body

While certain cameras will produce better results than others, most DSLRs or Mirrorless cameras released in the last 5 years or so will be capable of capturing a great photo of the stars. 

Lens

The right camera lens will play a huge factor at night. You’ll want to select a lens with a fast aperture, f2.8 or faster, to allow as much light in as possible. I often shoot with prime lenses (a lens with a fixed focal length) that offer apertures of f1.4. This will help make sure we can capture detail in both the foreground and the sky.

Tripod

All of your images at night will be long exposures, so it’s important to keep your camera as still as possible.

Headlamp

In addition to navigating at night, you’ll want to find a headlamp that has a red light available. The red light is less harsh and will help keep your night vision in-tact while you navigate in the dark.

Clothing

Layer up! It can be incredibly easy to under prepare in this situation. The temperatures can drop quite a bit at night and you’ll often be staying in the same location for extended periods of time. This means you’ll have less body heat to keep warm than on a normal hike. Pack an extra layer or two that you can put on as the night progresses to stay comfortable in lower temps. (add products)

Finding Dark Skies

Escaping Light Pollution

An easy way to ensure you’ll have an amazing view of the stars is by visiting a Dark Sky Park. This designation is given by the International Dark Sky association to areas committed to protecting the view of the stars. 

Moonphase

Most of the time when we’re taking photos of the night sky, we try to plan within a few days of the New Moon. This will ensure that the skies are at their absolute darkest and allow us to both see and capture as much detail as possible.

Basic Settings & Tips

When we head out to take photos of the stars, our goal is always to capture as much detail as possible while creating the best, or cleanest, possible image. Because we’re often shooting in a complete absence of light, all cameras produce a varying level of digital noise. 

Keeping that in mind, the settings we use will vary from camera to camera as well from one location to another all with the goal of producing as little digital noise as possible. 

Camera Mode: Manual (M) – We want to select each individual setting for our shot.

Shutter Speed:  5 to 30 seconds

Your shutter speed will vary depending on the size of your camera sensor and the focal length of the lens you’re using. The goal is let as much light in as possible while keeping the stars looking like stars. If our exposure time is too long, the stars begin to look like short lines due to the rotation of the Earth!

How to calculate your exposure time:

NPF Rule – (NPF = Aperture, Photosite, Focal Length) This equation (35 x aperture + 30 x pixel pitch) / focal length will take into consideration your exact camera model, lens, and aperture to give you the exposure time that will result in perfectly pin point stars. 

You can search Shutter Speed Calculator online or use the feature Spot Stars in the planning app Photo Pills to input the gear you’ll be using.

ISO: 1600 – 6400 

This is one the settings that will impact that quality of our image the greatest and also varies the greatest amount between different cameras. I recommend experimenting with different settings and reviewing to see what looks best to you. 

Aperture: f2.8 or faster

A lens with a fast aperture will allow you to collect more light while both keeping your stars sharp and limiting the amount of noise produced. In very dark locations, I try to always use a prime lens (a lens with a fixed focal length) that will often have a fast aperture of f1.4. There’s a huge different in the amount of light collected in both the sky and foreground resulting in much more visible detail.

File Format: RAW

RAW files require more editing for your final result, but hold more data as opposed to shooting in jpg. 

How to Focus for Sharp Stars: Manual / Infinity

After sunset, the auto-focus on our lens becomes unreliable at best. In order for our image to have both the foreground and the stars sharp and in focus, we want to focus on our lens to infinity. Here are two helpful ways to do this:

During the day, set your lens to autofocus and find an object on the horizon. After focusing, switch your lens back to manual focus. This should serve as a starting point, but might need a little bit of adjusting to dial it in.

A second way is using the live view on your camera at night. Magnify in on a bright star and slowly adjust the focus ring of your camera until it appears to be a small dot. This method takes a little practice, but is my go-to for focusing my lens at night.

Head Out and Enjoy

Spending the night under a dark sky can be a moment you’ll never forget. A vast majority of people in the world have never looked up and seen the Milky Way glowing above them. Being able to capture and share a small bit of that experience is something that can be an inspiration to other people that never knew that kind of view of the stars was even possible. 

Our night sky is something truly special and something that connects us all. No matter where we are in the world, we’re all looking up and sharing the same stars. I hope you’re excited to head out to see more of the night sky than you ever thought possible and come back excited to share the experience. And hopefully, share photos from a night you’ll never forget. 

See you under the stars.


@jackfusco | www.jackfusco.com

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