Astrophotography for Amateurs: Shooting Stars and Celestial Bodies

4 min readDec 23, 2023
Southern Cross by Julian Cheung, Accurova

Astrophotography, the art of capturing the night sky and its celestial wonders, is a fascinating and rewarding pursuit. It allows us to gaze into the cosmos and capture a part of the universe far beyond our reach. For beginners, the thought of photographing celestial bodies might seem daunting, but with some basic knowledge and practice, you can take breathtaking photos of the night sky. This guide will cover the essentials of astrophotography, including equipment, settings, and techniques.

Understanding Astrophotography

Astrophotography involves capturing images of the night sky, including stars, planets, the moon, and deep-sky objects like galaxies and nebulae. It combines elements of astronomy and photography, requiring both technical skill and creative vision.

1. Equipment Essentials

To start, you need a camera capable of manual settings, a sturdy tripod, and ideally, a wide-angle lens with a wide aperture (f/2.8 or lower is preferred). A remote shutter release or a camera with a built-in timer is also helpful to avoid camera shake.

Actionable Technique: Begin with simple star photography using just your camera and tripod. Set your camera on the tripod, aim it at a clear part of the sky, and start experimenting with different exposures.

2. Understanding Camera Settings

The key to successful astrophotography is mastering manual camera settings. You’ll be working with long exposures, wide apertures, and high ISO settings.

  • Exposure Time: Start with 20–30 seconds. Longer exposures will capture more light but can also lead to star trails due to the Earth’s rotation.
  • Aperture: Use the widest aperture your lens allows, such as f/2.8 or even f/1.8, to let in as much light as possible.
  • ISO: Begin with an ISO around 1600–3200. Higher ISO increases sensitivity to light but can introduce noise. However digital noise can be fixed by stacking in post.

Actionable Technique: Use the “500 rule” to determine the maximum exposure time before stars start to blur. Divide 500 by the focal length of your lens to get the maximum number of seconds for your exposure. For example, if you are using wide-angle 24mm, 500/24 = 20s approximately. If you are using telephoto 200mm, 500/200 = 2.5s. Your exposure should be shorter than this calculated duration to prevent star trailing, and to ensure the stars remain sharp and point-like.

3. Focusing in the Dark

Focusing at night can be challenging. Autofocus is rarely effective, so you’ll definitely need to use manual focus and keep it there.

Actionable Technique: Aim at a bright star or a distant light and adjust the focus until the star or light appears as a small, sharp point.

4. Composition and Location

Choosing the right location is crucial. You need a spot with minimal light pollution and a clear view of the sky. Also, consider including some foreground elements like trees or mountains to add depth and interest to your compositions.

Actionable Technique: Plan a night photography trip to a nearby dark sky area. Use apps like Dark Sky Finder to locate areas with minimal light pollution.

5. Shooting Star Trails and the Milky Way

Capturing star trails and the Milky Way requires slightly different techniques. For star trails, you need longer exposures or a series of shots over several hours to show the stars’ movement. For the Milky Way, find a dark location and use a wide-angle lens to capture its vast expanse.

Actionable Technique: To capture the Milky Way, plan your shoot during the new moon phase when the sky is darkest. Aim your camera toward the core of the Milky Way (consult a stargazing app for its location) and use the settings recommended for star photography.

6. Post-Processing

Astrophotography often requires some level of post-processing to bring out the details and colors of the night sky. Stack your images using apps like Deep Sky Stacker, Sequator or AutoStakkert. The resulting stacked file can be brought into software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to adjust exposure, contrast, and color balance.

Actionable Technique: Experiment with post-processing by adjusting the exposure and contrast to bring out the details of the night sky. Play with the color balance to enhance the natural colors of stars and the Milky Way.

Conclusion: The Wonders of the Night Sky

Astrophotography opens up a universe of wonders to photographers. It requires patience, practice, and a willingness to learn, but the rewards are immense. There’s something profoundly humbling and inspiring about capturing the beauty of the cosmos. So, grab your gear, head out into the night, and start your journey into the world of astrophotography.

With these tips and techniques in hand, you’re well on your way to capturing the awe-inspiring beauty of the night sky. Remember, astrophotography is as much about the experience as it is about the result. Enjoy your time under the stars!

A more advanced guide to Astrophotography will be released soon in due time.

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Meet Julian Cheung, a passionate professional photographer dedicated to immortalising your life's invaluable moments.