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Shooting The Night Sky, A Beginners Guide To Astrophotography

26/01/2015 14:23 | Updated 27 January 2015

Astrophotography can be very daunting when you’re a beginner, especially if you’re not sure where to start.

Do I need a telescope? Which one should I get? Which camera do I need? These are all good questions you should be asking yourself.

You need to feel comfortable using your camera and its functions, so one particular brand will not suit all. Take some time trying different models if you can, because obviously not all will achieve the same result. Making a list of what you want to achieve from your images will give you a good idea of what features you will need, this will help you narrow down the camera brand.

You can however, achieve stunning starscape shots like these below without using a telescope.

stonehenge

star trails

Professional photographer Andrew Whyte has been shooting striking astrophotography shots like these for years. Using long exposure he has also mastered the art of 'merging light' in his shots.

The key to achieving a jaw dropping starry night image is obviously darkness and a camera with a high ISO potential, Andrew gave us a guide in how to shoot in the dark and produce great results.

Wherever you are in the UK there are many dark sky sites which you can check on the Dark Sky Discovery site. If you are in a light polluted area like London try and find an area as dark as possible, perhaps a park you may have access to or anywhere away from street lights.

We ventured to the Isle of Man which has 26 dark sky sites armed with a Sony A7s, which Andrew says gives him the best quality for his astro images, ‘There's almost nothing on the market that can compare to the performance of the sensor on the A7s, possibly a recent Nikon model but at nearly £5k it's more than twice the price.’ The A7s has a phenomenal ISO range of 50 to 409600 with ultra-low noise.

astrophotoraphy


As well as your camera here are a few other things you will definitely need before you start shooting:

A sturdy tripod - a must when doing long exposure shots
A good torch - this will aid you in finding a focussing point
Batteries - in case your torch dies
Some very warm clothes or lots and lots of layers - it will get VERY cold especially in winter
A flask of something hot - is an added plus and will definitely aid your wait between shots and warm you up

As as a beginner there are bound to be some hiccups, not to mention weather playing a big part in how your images end up so be patient and keep trying.

It’s true many of you may not be as lucky to have a professional photographer assisting you like we did, Andrew answers some vital questions on how you can get around problems that may arise as a first timer and some tips to achieve startrails below.

isle of man star split
Right: First stop - Foxdale Mine, Isle of Man, Left: Second stop - A derelict house in Langness, Isle of Man

We were lucky to enough to get some good shots considering there was a fair amount of cloud coverage in some parts, so it's worth checking the weather forecast before you make preparations to head out.

  • Tahira Mirza/https://twitter.com/tahiramirza1
    'Later on the sky went on to clear and give us one final look at the stars. A little coloured light painting in the foreground served to lift the shadows. This is one of the two pictures for which I used Photoshop, to merge the green foreground light into the orange.' - Andrew Whyte
  • Andrew Whyte/https://twitter.com/LongExposures
    'What most impressed me is how the lens (35mm f/2.8) stays truly crisp right into the corners with no evidence of "lens coma" even when used at its widest aperture setting.' - Andrew Whyte
  • Tahira Mirza/https://twitter.com/tahiramirza1
    'The clouds at this point were consuming more of the starlight meaning that short, 30 second frames would likely result in a blank, dark sky. Instead we ran the cameras for about 4 minutes which afforded plenty of time - and purpose - for light art. The sphere- usually referred to as a "Lenser Orb"- was created with a LED Lenser light wand and the remaining trails are from a string of LED lights.' - Andrew Whyte
  • Libby Plummer/https://twitter.com/LibbyPlummer
    'The shutter was open for nearly two minutes as opposed to our more common setting on the night of 30 seconds. The longer exposure time has caused the stars to start trailing. Despite this, you'll notice the image is no brighter- the shutter speed being quadrupled from 30 seconds to (nearly) 120 seconds was countered by a reciprocal reduction in ISO speed, from 6400 to 3200 then 1600 to maintain the same final exposure value.' - Andrew Whyte
  • Rebecca May/https://twitter.com/bexlectric
    'Possibly the night's best capture of the visible arc of our Milky Way, rising up through the middle of the frame. That's partly down to timing (it's one of the earlier shots from the night, the moon's presence is still just visible behind the right-hand mine building and spreading colour across the distant horizon) but also a factor of lens choice, with the wide-angle lens allowing a lot of sky to be included above the structures.' - Andrew Whyte
  • Trevor Davies/https://twitter.com/trevadavies
    'An interesting abstract of sky with cloud drifting overhead, this one. It's easy to imagine a scene where there's a foreground element and you're looking to capture cloud drifting through a particular part of the frame to complete the composition. The low-light performance of the A7s introduces an unprecedented flexibility to control how much cloud movement you capture.' - Andrew Whyte
  • Libby Plummer/https://twitter.com/LibbyPlummer
    'This is great for a glimpse behind-the-scenes, showing tripods set up and photographers at work. The sky above the structures is not as expansive, as the lens in this instance has a slightly narrower field of view. Another interesting feature of this shot appears to be the cloud inversion where, from our hilltop vantage point, the island ahead of us lies beneath the cloud (hence the dark area beneath the glowing yellow band of moonset).' - Andrew Whyte
  • Rebecca May/https://twitter.com/bexlectric
    'I really like the rippled texture of the clouds on the lower left hand side of this pic, the few distant streetlights adding colour and texture to the drifting motion.' - Andrew Whyte
  • Andrew Whyte/https://twitter.com/LongExposures
    'The second result that was assisted by Photoshop rather than simply Lightroom. I processed the same RAW file in two different ways - firstly to optimise the sky, then to extract detail from the buildings. It was then a simple task to mask off the unwanted areas of each layer. On lighting, I always try to convey depth by illuminating a subject in a way to retain areas of shadow- the A7s copes very well with these extreme contrasts of light & dark.' - Andrew Whyte
  • Tahira Mirza/https://twitter.com/tahiramirza1
    'Just when I thought I might be running out of things to say about these similar images I caught sight of the settings for this particular shot. For a moment my eyes flitted backwards and forwards between the image itself and my screen that was telling me the settings. Somehow, this was shot at ISO16000(!) and retained a very respectable image quality. To put that into context, the optimum starting point for shooting the Milky Way is widely regarded as ISO3200 for 30 seconds. With this image's settings one could achieve an image of the same brightness and no less useable in just 6 seconds. For serious astrophotographers, that represents a potentially huge increase in productivity.' - Andrew Whyte
  • Tahira Mirza/https://twitter.com/tahiramirza1

USEFUL TIPS:

We had a few hiccups setting up initially if you are a beginner how would you avoid these?

‘As a beginner, there will always be a little time needed to get used to the camera and lens combinations if you’re not familiar with them – it is always helpful for beginners to get used to their camera in the daylight rather than on a pitch dark, wind swept hillside!

Generally, the key problems experienced by beginners at night/astrophotography are how to focus in the dark, nailing a sharp shot, getting the exposure right.

These can be overcome by using a torch to assist with focus, or even setting up while there's still some residual daylight around- it can make such a big difference. Tripod stability and in-camera/ lens-based Image Stabilisation/ Vibration Reduction features are the key factors which contribute to a sharp image. Make sure the tripod is locked solid in every plane of movement, and completely switch off any IS/ VR settings for best results. If possible, use a cable/ remote release or timer to trigger the camera so that it isn't nudged and destabilised at the start of an exposure. Getting the exposure right gets easier with experience but is subject to the look and feel the photographer is trying to achieve, so best done referencing the preview screen on a shot-by-shot basis. However, thanks to the sensor's strengths the live view system on the Sony A7s does give a great idea of how the finished shot will look, before it's taken. Neither the Canon or Nikon live view systems I've used have been this powerful.’

If you live in the city where there is light pollution what tips can you give in order to get the best results?

'Light pollution is going to be your number one challenge but air quality is also a factor. To overcome both, head for some of London's parks as these tend to be quieter, darker spaces: Regents Park has a regular astronomy meet whilst Greenwich, Clapham Common and Primrose Hill all offer wide sky views on clear nightsThe aesthetic consideration here is what you're going to feature in the foreground, so these locations are arguably better suited to deeper space through a scope than widefield. Widespread power outages excepted, you're unlikely to ever get a view of the Milky Way in even the darkest London location but it is possible to shoot startrails around the capital.'

What are the benefits of using this camera attached to a telescope?

‘As I understand the technique of using a camera attached to a telescope, there are two distinct benefits to using the A7s as an exceptional low-light performing camera. Firstly, the more general astro benefit that it produces very clean files with low noise and generous dynamic range, even at higher ISO ratings. Dynamic range is used to describe the difference between the brightest and darkest areas of an image; the A7s captures greater than average detail between these two points so the final image is smoother and has more latitude for editing.

Secondly, one of the key things you're trying to do particularly when shooting through a telescope for deeper space astro is to counteract the movement of the stars introduced by the earth's rotation- this is achieved by using as short an exposure as possible (but capturing the same shot many times over, to 'stack' subsequently). As the A7s has exceptional light gathering abilities, it can gather the cleanest files in the shortest timeframe.’

What are the best settings if you are trying to achieve startrails?

‘First thing to say about startrails is that they can be created in a much wider range of locations than the Milky Way. You still want to start with a wide aperture (say, f/2.8) and a mid-range ISO (maybe 400). Try a test shot of 15 seconds at those settings. If it's too dark, increase only the ISO to 800 and repeat with a 15 second test. If the original frame was too light, reduce the ISO to 200 and repeat. Leave the aperture at f/2.8 but continue adjusting ISO (min 200 max 1600) then shutter speed (min 8 seconds max 30 seconds) until you've found the right exposure settings. Lock the shutter open with a cable release so that it's taking a sequence of frames. You can then batch edit and stack these on a computer- StarStaX is a great, free, multi-platform program for creating a single startrail image from a bunch of JPGs.’

See more of Andrew Whyte's work at www.longexposures.co.uk, Twitter and Flickr sites.

For information on the Sony A7s see here.

Astrophotography By Andrew Whyte

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