Plus, some additional astrophotography tips.
There's always been something magical about the night sky - the twinkling of the moon, the mystery of the beyond, and the promise of wishes when a shooting star passes. That's why so many photographers - professional and hobbyists - find themselves standing for hours in the cold, dead of the night, just to grab that one perfect shot. Perhaps you're thinking of capturing yourself that photo, especially with the passing of Comet Neowise this week.
Astrophotography doesn't have to be hard - although it's something you will struggle to achieve on your phone's camera! In this post, we hope to help give you some handy tips and guides, to help you understand the ins and outs of photographing the night sky and all its wonders.
Forecast & Timings
The best weather for astrophotography is a clear night. We use Clear Outside - you can check the forecast schedule for your area in advance here. Additionally, the best time for capturing Comet Neowise is early in the morning - just before Sunrise is when it will be at its most visible and brightest in the sky. However, we took the photo below at around 1am, and it was still very clear to the naked eye.
The best places to shoot night-photography, as well as Comet Neowise, are locations that are high up with little obstruction, such as trees and houses. It's also best to head somewhere where there is little light pollution, as this will affect your photos. We've found that unless you live somewhere remote, national parks are the best places to shoot night-time photography - they tend to have little to no light pollution, but also have car parks and clear walking trails, so are easy to navigate in the dark. Additionally, a lot of national parks will have nearby campsites, making it easier to spend long periods of time overnight capturing the perfect shot.
"The best time for capturing Comet Neowise is early in the morning, just before Sunrise"
Like we mentioned above, you will struggle to capture a good image of the night sky on your phone due to the small sensor size and lack of real shutter control. For the best results, you will want a DSLR or mirrorless camera and it's no surprise that ones with bigger sensors work best. We advise using a camera with an APS-C sensor or larger for astrophotography, although we have found ourselves using micro four third sensors and getting good results before. The reason for this is that you will need to shoot at longer exposures in order for your camera to gather as much light as possible from the dark, night sky and the larger your sensor, the more light it can gather; thus, the better your image. We advise full-frame cameras like the Canon 5D Mark 4 as a standard for the best results, although if you're looking for super results at an APS-C level, you can't go wrong with Sony's A series.
We know that the prices of these cameras can be pretty extreme for hobbyists or first-timers, so for a budget option, look at older full-frame cameras like the Canon 5D Mark 2, or, early 2010 DSLRs like the Canon 600D. These won't break the bank, but will give you a great camera with shutter speed control.
Now you have the camera, you need to think lenses. The night sky is a big space but sometimes you are looking to capture just a few constellations or passing comets. Thinking about what you want to capture of the night sky will determine whether you use a wide-angle lens or telephoto zoom. It's simple; for landscapes and panoramics, go wide, for constellations and comets, go zoom. The key element to whichever lens you choose is that it needs to be quick. You can make it work with an f/2.8 lens, but really you want to try and go as quick as possible - f1.8 lenses are readily available and perfect for this. We personally recommend the Samyang 12mm f/2 for APS-C cameras, and the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 for full-frame ones.
Camera settings are the key to successful astrophotography. If it hasn't been made clear by now, long shutter speeds are key. Think of your camera as your eyes. When you first step out into the dark night you can't see much of the stars and land but after 20 seconds your eyes adjust and suddenly the magic is right in front of you. The same goes for your camera. Open that shutter up for at least 10 seconds each exposure to really capture the full night sky. How long you need to set your shutter depends on the f stop of your lens and the style of photograph you want to capture and remember, you can bump your ISO up and reduce your shutter speed, but be careful of introducing too much noise to your image (800 max - camera dependant).
A good starting point for lower-end cameras is a 20-second shutter, iso 500, aperture as low as you can. If it's too dark, try a 30-second exposure or bump your iso, if it's too bright, drop your iso first, then your shutter. Find the right balance and experiment.
And don't forget to enjoy the view with your eyes!
Light-painting, for those of you not in the know, is a photographic technique of moving a light source whilst taking a long exposure photo. It allows the photographer to illuminate a subject. When shooting long-exposure in the dark for astrophotography, briefly lighting up your subject (whether it be a building, prop, or person) during the long exposure, will allow the subject to become visible in the photo; for example, on the photograph below, we lit our friend to become the main focus of the image. This is a fun technique that can add more depth to your images.
Thanks for reading, and happy snapping!