Astrophotography is awesome! But, is it difficult? No! Contrary to some opinions, you don’t have to own a ton of expensive gear, have perfectly dark skies, or have mad technical skills to pull it off. In this short four-part series, we will talk about how you can go out and shoot astrophotographs with basic photographic gear, and then digitally process the images with basic techniques. In the following stories, we’ll be talking stars, discussing gear, studying capture techniques, and learning some post-processing tips for optimizing your digital files.
The digital revolution has made astrophotography accessible to almost anyone with a camera. However, the genre remains one of the most intimidating segments of photography. It’s easy to find websites featuring spectacular astronomical photographs, but when you read the “fine print” or “how I got the shot” information you find things like this:
“I used a 21-inch refractor with a Yellow #12 filter and liquid-cooled homemade CCD in a camera modified for specific wavelengths of light. It was all mounted on a motorized German equatorial mount with the camera taking 120 images over an 8-hour period. I then stacked the images together on my computer using two different software systems (one that I wrote the code for myself) to get the final image after two days of work in Photoshop.”
Because of exaggerated examples like this, many of us think that, to successfully photograph deep sky objects, a photographer has to 1) have the right gear, and a lot of it, 2) know specialized capture methods, and 3) invent varsity post-processing techniques on the computer.
Although I immensely respect (and might be jealous of) the extraordinary effort, awe-inspiring gear, and dedication to the image employed by such photographers, complex capture isn’t exactly the best way to inspire a novice to embark into the world of astrophotography.
Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp
I have been photographing the moon for decades and the sun for years but, honestly, because of the intimidation factor I outlined above, I rarely dabbled in what I would call “true” astrophotography—photographing the planets, stars, Milky Way, and other celestial phenomena of the night sky. But guess what? With a digital camera and a tripod, both you and I can set up in our backyards or a nearby park and get some share-worthy images while enjoying the night sky!
Before we dive in, let’s manage some expectations, and set the mood.
We Are Not Professionals
If we mere mortals had the power to do big-time astrophotos from our home with simple gear, there would be no reason for building gigantic Earth-based observatories and launching expensive telescopes into orbit. If you spend your time looking at NASA imagery of distant galaxies, exploding stars, and cosmic dust, realize that those images were captured with very expensive and highly sophisticated instruments either from orbit or strategically placed on Earth for prime observing. So, even If you have the best equipment available to consumers, don’t expect to capture a Hubble Space Telescope-caliber image at home.
The night sky is chock-full of wonders, and many of those spectacles can be admired through the naked eye, as well as with your camera. While your camera is doing its thing, don’t be afraid to grab a pair of astro binoculars, a spotting scope, or telescope and look toward the heavens. There are amazing sights to take in—much more than the moon, planets, and constellations! When I photographed the total solar eclipse, I can tell you that what I saw with my own solar-protected eyes and through filtered binoculars was way more impressive than any photograph can convey. Similarly, looking at the moon, Jupiter, Saturn, or other aspects of space, through binoculars, a spotting scope, or telescope is more of a feast for the eyes than just looking at a photograph of the same thing. The exception to this rule is deep sky stuff—more on that next.
Your Camera Sees What the Eye Cannot
This is may be the coolest part of astrophotography. Our eyes are very good at seeing in the dark, but when our vision shifts from cones to rods, one thing we don’t see well is color. Guess what? The camera has no such limitations. A nebula that looks like a barely-visible faint brown smear in the night sky through the world’s best astronomical binoculars looks like a vibrant stellar wonderland to your camera. Get ready to discover, with your camera’s eye, the wonders of the heavens! Where did I park my warp-capable starship? You’ll want to go for a ride, I promise you!
You Cannot See Everything
Years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope was pointed at a blank (black) area of the cosmos near the Big Dipper’s handle—about 1/30 the width of the full moon—for 100 hours. It took 342 pictures of what looked a black void to ground-based telescopes. After the images were combined and analyzed, 3,000 never-before-seen galaxies appeared. There are approximately 50 billion galaxies out there, but you can only see one with the naked eye—Andromeda. My point is that there is a lot out there, but we can only see and photograph a tiny sliver of a sliver of what makes up the universe as we know it. Knowing we are ground-based observers shooting through an atmosphere that protects us from harm, yet screws up astrophotos, might help you to understand that you won’t be able to see everything the big telescopes and space telescopes can, but…
You Can Make Discoveries
Over the generations, many of the world’s important celestial discoveries were made by amateur astronomers with basic equipment. Since the pros don’t have enough eyes or observatories to cover the entire cosmos all the time, it’s not farfetched to say that you could discover something new in the night sky. You might spot a new comet, an exploding star, or an asteroid passing close to Earth. Regardless, even if it is not a new discovery, seeing something for the first time with your own eyes is a fantastic experience. And, even if it isn’t the most epic photo ever, the first time you photograph a nebula or the Andromeda Galaxy, you’ll be able to show your friends and say, “I took that photo!”
Let’s KISS (Keep it Simple, Stargazers)
As I wrote earlier, if you’ve considered astrophotography before, you might have been turned off by all the Internet banter about expensive telescopes, abundant filters, complex tracking mounts and rigs, how to deal with star trails, and post-processing stuff like stacking, layer masks, noise reduction, and so on. All that stuff is awesome, and great for astrophotography, and I respect the technical aspects, but it is not good if it deters you from trying to get your own shots. My goal is to tell you how to do this in the simplest way possible. If you find it as awesome as I do, then by all means get more gear! But, for now, let’s shoot with what you already own and process the images quickly!
OK. Are you ready to go explore the night sky with your camera? Click here for Part II of this series.