Whether this is your first visit to Space Tourism Guide, or you’ve been reading along as we share space tourism tips around the world, you’ve probably noticed: we almost always try to provide tips on how to document your experiences.
In the age of digital photography, Instagram, and the desire to capture everything, it’s important to document your stargazing trip, aurora experience, or finally seeing your first rocket launch. More than your average vacation selfie or snapshot, some of these space tourism experiences require a little extra work to capture in a great picture.
With that in mind, we sat down with Gary Arndt from Everything Everywhere to talk about astrophotography. Gary is an award-winning photographer with a string of national awards going back almost a decade; his work has been featured in publications like National Geographic and USA Today; and he runs a photography course called Travel Photography Academy. He has taken photographs in both night and day across all seven continents – and he had some helpful tips to get you started taking photos of the night sky on your next trip.
The Basis: Gear, Setup & Composition
It might seem odd, but it’s almost more important that you have the right gear and understand the photo you’re trying to shoot than getting your camera settings 100% right. Before you head out to try and capture an amazing astrophotograph, start with these tips that cover the basics of astrophotography and what you’ll need to bring with you to make it a successful trip.
Tip #1. Use a Tripod
You may think it’s enough to buy a great camera and set the right settings. When it comes to astrophotography, you’ll need a tripod if you want the kind of crisp, clear photos you’ve seen elsewhere.
At shutter speeds slower than 1/60, the human heartbeat causes enough small movements that hand-held shooting will start to make your star or moon photos look blurry. Therefore, you’ll need a good tripod to mount your camera and reduce that movement.
Pro-tip: This doesn’t mean you have to invest in a super hefty or heavy tripod. For example, this 50″ lightweight aluminum tripod is a great travel option for less than $20; in windy shooting conditions, you can use the tripod bag loaded with rocks to hang from the center support to increase stability.
Tip #2. Trigger the Shutter with a Release Cable or Remote
Just as your heartbeat can affect the clarity and sharpness of your photos, the action of pressing and releasing the shutter on your camera can do the same.
As such, Gary recommends that using shutter release cable or remote to further reduce movement that might mess up your photos. There are some great options that can plug right into your camera or pair via Bluetooth so that you can control your camera without needing to touch it at all.
Pro-tip: If you don’t want to invest in or carry additional gear, get familiar with the timer settings on your camera. You can set up a 3- or 10-second delay on your shutter then step away from the setup while the photo is shot.
Tip #3. Frame the Night Sky Using the Foreground
A photograph of a sky full of stars is actually not as compelling as you might imagine. While our eyes have great peripheral vision and pick up a lot of context from the world around us while stargazing, our cameras can only see what we point them at. If you shoot straight up or include only the sky in your astrophotographs, you’ll end up with a photo of white/red/blue dots on a black background.
Instead, use the world around you to frame the sky. Even a silhouette can become a compelling point of reference for a night sky photo, Gary says. Use mountains, landscapes, trees, or other features and your stars will suddenly seem more impressive.
Pro-tip: Don’t have any interesting scenery around? Try putting yourself in the photo and triggering the shutter with your remote or a timer. Your silhouette can make the picture even more interesting and personal.
Tip #4. Use Flight Paths & Satellites to Your Advantage
For those of us who live in cities, it’s hard to realize how much moves in the night sky each night.
If you’ve traveled to somewhere cool like Joshua Tree National Park or even just the outskirts of your hometown, you’ll suddenly see: there are always things moving in the night sky. Airplanes, satellites, and even the International Space Station pass overhead and can mess up a great photo with a streak of light.
Instead, try and use these to your advantage. Spend a few minutes before you start shooting to get a sense of flight paths and any satellites you see. Set up your shot to either point away from these – or to include them if you want an interesting element in your picture.
Pro-tip: If you want to avoid airplane or satellite trails in your photos, try heading out to your astrophotography spot a night early. Spend 15-30 minutes stargazing and watching the sky. You’ll get a sense of what will likely be passing overhead when you come back for your photo shoot.
Tip #5. Bring Extra Batteries
It’s easy to overlook the most important thing you’ll need to bring in order to shoot astrophotography: batteries! Cold weather and long exposure times can drain your camera batteries quickly, so Gary advises that you pack extra batteries whenever you’re heading out to shoot the stars.
Pro-tip: Carry a minimum of 3 charged batteries at all times if you’re headed out for a night shoot. It’s common to spend up to two hours shooting, and you can easily burn through that many depending on the air temperature and length of your exposures.
Exposure: Capturing the Astrophoto You Want
In photography, it’s more than just point-and-shooting. This is especially true in a technically complex situation like astrophotography. For starters, you’ll need to be shooting in manual mode at all times. If you don’t understand how to control the manual mode settings on your camera, be sure to check the manual before you set out to shoot photos.
If you’re not familiar with the exposure triangle, check out this helpful resource from popular photography website Fstoppers. It explains that in all photos, you must balance the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to capture the right amount of light for the right amount of time.
When you reduce the light in astrophotography, it’s even more imperative that you understand how changing each of these variables will affect your photos. Read on to learn some quick tips about each, plus how to focus your camera for night photography.
Tip #6. Control Your Shutter to Capture the Stars
Some astrophotographers love star trails; others want only pin-prick perfect stars captured for a single moment. Depending on your preferences, adjust your shutter speed. Here are some tips:
- If you want sharp, clear stars in your astrophotos, keep your shutter speed to 15 seconds or shorter. To make sure you capture enough light to see anything at all, you’ll need a lower aperture (Tip #6) and higher ISO (Tip #7).
- If you want star trails, opt for a longer shutter speed; you can start to see star trails at 30-second exposures, but this also depends on your aperture, ISO, and the direction you’re pointing in the sky. At this 30-second sweet spot, you’ll start to capture small star trails in your photos.
Pro-tip: Petapixel, a popular photography blog, has a great resource for getting the kind of stair trails you see in the above photo. Most of the long stair trail photos are composite photos – and this post shows you exactly how to do them including post-production (Tip #10).
Tip #7. Open Your Aperture as Wide as Possible
Depending on the lens(es) you’re shooting with, it’s generally a good rule of thumb to open up your aperture as wide as possible to capture more light. Another way of saying this is that you want your F-stop to be as low a number as possible.
In most cases, an F-stop of 1.8-2.8 will be a good range for astrophotography. If your lens doesn’t go that low, you’ll need to set your ISO higher to make up the difference capture more light.
Pro-tip: Some amateur photographers worry that if their kit lens doesn’t have the right aperture range, they just won’t be able to shoot any astrophotography at all. Roughly speaking you can compensate with a longer shutter speed and higher ISO and still get some great shots.
Tip #8. Understand How High Your ISO Can Go Without Noise
The above picture has a lot going on, doesn’t it? The sky seems to be almost full of stars and color – way more than we can see with our eyes while stargazing.
This is likely because the photo was shot with a ‘high’ ISO, probably 6400 or higher, to capture the cloudy look of the Milky Way. Historically, ISO was a standardized measure of the sensitivity of your film; in the era of digital cameras, it means how sensitive your camera’s sensor is.
The higher your ISO, the more ‘noise’ you’ll see in your pictures. When it comes to astrophotography, noise can look a lot like the photo above: color in the sky, cloudiness, and what sort of looks like stars everywhere. If this is the effect you’re going for, crank up the ISO. If you want darker skies, try setting your ISO lower.
Pro-tip: As the third part of the exposure triangle, ISO is an important factor that many amateur photographers overlook. If you’re learning to shoot astrophotography, try leaving your shutter speed and aperture the same and shooting photos at different levels of ISO. You’ll see how much difference changing this setting can have!
Tip #9. Step Your Focus Back from Infinity
You might think that because you’re shooting literally millions of light years into the distance, your focus should be set to infinity. Gary advises that this is often not the best move.
Instead, he advises that you set your focus to infinity (as far as it will focus into the distance), then bring the focal point just a little bit back. This can help improve the clarity of your photos in a way you may not notice until post-production.
Pro-tip: If possible, try setting up your shot and focus during the daytime. Especially if you’re using a feature like a tree or rock formation in the foreground, you’ll ensure they are crisp and clear and the stars are too.
Final Steps: What Happens After You Shoot
For many amateur photographers, we take a photo and then assume our work is done – a great photo was great from the moment it was taken, right?
Turns out, post-production is an important part of astrophotography. In this final tip, learn more about why post-production is the key to a beautiful photo of the night sky.
Tip #10. Finalize Your Work in Post-Production
Most people don’t realize how much work goes into making a great photograph in post-production.
Back in the days of film, this meant how the photographer worked in a dark room to properly develop and create prints from their film. Now, it means understanding software like Adobe Lightroom and using that software to help improve the quality of your raw photos. For example, when creating star trail photos, you’ll almost certainly need to do post-production and create a composite image.
If you don’t use any software for post-production of your photos, now’s the time. It will help your astrophotos be even more spectacular.
Recommended Astrophotography Gear
Here is a short list of the products we’ve recommended in this post, as well as others we use here at Space Tourism Guide for our own astrophotography.
- Astrophotography Camera: The Sony A6000 is a popular and high-performing option (from $548).
- Travel-Friendly Tripod: The Acuvar 50″ aluminum tripod is made for smartphones, but can also mount a traditional camera. It’s lightweight and affordable (from $18).
- Bluetooth Remote: This Sony Bluetooth remote pairs easily with alpha and NEX models (from $28).
- Optional Lenses: The Sony A6000 comes with a standard 16-50mm 3.5-5.6 kit lens, which will do fine for astrophotography. If you want additional options, the 50mm 1.8 lens (from $169) or 35mm 1.8 wide angle lens (from $218) are both good.
Note: The above links, as well as others in this post, may be affiliate links. This means that we receive a commission from the seller whenever a purchase is made after clicking the link. This commission comes at no additional expense to you.