Deep-sky astrophotography is not a forgiving hobby for beginners. There is a lot to learn and a lot of sleepless nights to sacrifice if you want to take high-quality astro pictures. But stay calm. With this Astrophotography For Beginners tips compilation, you will become more than ready to shoot your first mindblowing astrophoto!
Astrophotography For Beginners – 13 Tips to apply today (and tonight)
1. Use the equipment you already have
If you own a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, use it for astrophotography!
It’s true that there are specialized, expensive CCD and CMOS astronomy cameras on the market. It’s true that Canon or Nikon just released their newest model with a ton of cool features. So what? Your actual camera is probably very-highly capable of doing astrophotography!
To enter this hobby is best to start small and build up from there. A beginner astrophotography setup consist:
- A tracking mount
- A camera
- A fast lens
- A tripod
Nothing else! If you are a photographer, you are probably equipped with a camera, lens, and tripod. Add an equatorial mount (even a small, mobile one), and you are ready to go.
Of course, if you don’t own any (astro)photography equipment, then you have to go shopping. But you don’t need the fanciest astrophotography camera and the best astrophotography lens to take an astrophoto. Try first with the gear you already have, and you will be surprised with the effects.
2. Spend your gear-budget the right way – invest more money in an equatorial mount rather than astrophotography camera or astrophotography lens
If you are interested in wide-field Milky Way photography only, then this point may not apply to you. But if your goal is to photograph deep-sky objects (nebulae, star clusters, galaxies, etc.), then a high-quality German equatorial mount is a must.
I mean, really. The better equatorial mount you’ll acquire, the better your astrophotos will be.
If you have X amount of money to spend on your entire astrophotography setup, then you should spend half of your money on an equatorial mount, and the other half on the rest. Mount is the most critical piece of gear in your rig. Why?
The mount is the heart of your entire imaging system. With a cheaper camera, you get more noise, but you can deal with it taking more subs and working more in post-processing. With a budget lens, you catch less light (narrower aperture), but you can deal with this by taking more or longer exposures or setting higher ISO. But with cheaper mount, you won’t be able to track accurately, so your pictures will be blurry. You won’t recover quality from them.
Invest in equatorial mount first, then in the rest. The longer the focal length you want to work in is, the more important the sentence is.
3. Find a dark-sky spot near your location
If you can, do your astrophotos in the darkest place possible. Not only it will improve your picture’s signal-to-noise ratio, but also your post-processing routine will be much easier.
The best way to find a high-quality astrophotography night sky in your area is to use the Light Pollution Map web app.
4. Plan your astrophotography sessions
To get most out of your time under the stars, plan your imaging sessions before leaving your home. There are many things to consider:
- What do you want to photograph
- The season for your target (not all deep-sky objects are visible all-year)
- Imaging location
- Sky quality (light pollution)
And many more. All of those are important factors for a successful imaging session. To make your life easier, use some astrophotography apps to plan your nights. The more control you have, the better your pictures will be.
5. Triple-check you have all your astrophotography gear before leaving
If you shoot from your balcony or a backyard, this doesn’t apply to you. But if you have to travel outside the city for your imaging session, be sure you packed all your astrophotography gear. The best way is to do a self-written checklist of equipment and to prepare with it in your hand. Some major points:
- Charge and test all your batteries
- Check cables
- Inspect your flashlight
- Check if you have a free memory on SD card
- Refuel gas in your car
- Pack some warm clothes in case of a poor weather
- Grab some snacks and drinks
It’s better to sacrifice ten minutes for gear inspection than realizing at the site that you forgot one piece of required equipment.
6. Master your tools on a daytime
… and don’t waste the precious time under a clear night sky.
Learn how your rig works. Check every knob. Assemble and disassemble your rig. Determine how to use an intervalometer. Learn your camera or software menu.
It’s true that you will learn the most during the actual shooting time, but there are things you can understand before and speed up your learning process.
7. Learn how to find the North Star (Polaris)
Being able to spot the North Star (Polaris) is probably the most basic skill of every astrophotographer out there. Without knowing where the North Star is, you can’t correctly set up your equatorial mount fast (there are advanced techniques to align your mount without seeing Polaris like the drift-align method, but they require more time). Luckily, finding Polaris is quite easy.
If you have trouble finding the North Star, you can always use a mobile planetary app.
8. Don’t rush leveling your tripod and polar aligning your mount
Leveling and polar aligning your rig is the most crucial factor for a successful astrophotography session.
With improper leveling, your tracking won’t be accurate. With improper polar aligning, your tracking won’t be accurate. Add those two factors together, and it will result in crap pictures.
I know that getting to the dark site, assembling your rig, and then correctly set up it takes time, and you just want to start photographing finally. But be patient. Proper setup is crucial. You want to have pinpoint stars. The final result will be worth your efforts, trust me.
9. Discover the best deep-sky targets for beginners
Maybe you are familiarized with the night sky from some previous astronomy activities. If so, then you probably know what you want to photograph.
But if not, don’t worry! The night sky isn’t so hard to get familiar with.
My first-ever deep-sky target was Orion nebula. The Andromeda Galaxy and the North America Nebula are also great deep-sky objects to start. They are all big, bright, and easy to locate on the night sky. Depending on the season I suggest starting with one of those. If you want to discover more easy astrophotography targets for beginners, check out my free ebook:
10. Shoot in RAW, not JPG
RAW files have a bigger size. With more memory occupied on the card, the more information you have in your picture. That leads to better astrophotos. Just set your camera to a RAW mode and forget about JPGes. You can do more in post-processing with RAWs than with JPGs.
11. Take calibration frames
If you are just starting your astrophotography adventure, then you probably take only so-called light frames. Light frames are just a normal, regular-color (RGB) pictures, straight from your camera. And that’s fine! In the beginning, it’s everything you need.
But later, when you want to improve the quality of your astrophotos considerably, in addition to light frames, you should also start taking calibration frames.
You shoot darks by covering your lens with the cap and take the same exposures as normal light-frames. Darks are used in post-processing to subtract sensor noise from your image.
Flats are used to flatten your image and remove vignetting. This process could be done with a proper slider in your post-processing software, but with flats, you will get better results.
Shooting flats is a little bit different than darks. You can shoot them in daylight by pointing your telescope onto the clear blue sky, or in a dark room straight into the white LCD screen. With both methods, you should cover your telescope with a white t-shirt to soften the light.
When you have lights, darks, and flats, then you can stack them in post-processing:
12. Invest time to learn post-processing
Images straight from a camera don’t look impressive (usually). Only a good post-processing routine can pull out the details hidden in your RAWs.
But to be good at astrophotography post-processing, you have to invest a lot of time into this. Obtaining calibration frames, resolving good and bad subs, stacking, histogram stretching, curves and levels adjusting, sharpening, noise reducing, etc. It’s a lot of new topics for a beginner astrophotographer. Post-processing isn’t easy, but don’t let this discourage you. Practice a lot, and every one of your next pictures will be better than the previous one.
13. The longer your integration time (summarized time of single exposures), the more details you reveal on a picture
Astrophotography is not a hobby for impatient people. Sure, you can take a picture with acceptable quality with a single 60s exposure, and your friends will surely like it on every social media, but to take a great astrophoto, you have to expose your sensor longer, even for hours.
Generally, deep-sky astrophotography is all about increasing SNR (signal-to-noise ratio):
- Noise (on your camera sensor) is random. Taking multiple shots on the same subject and stacking them together almost eliminates noise completely.
- Signal is constant. The more exposures you take, the more signal you have. Thus, the better quality your picture is.
That being said, if you are not happy with your pictures, even having a perfect leveling, tracking, guiding, and focusing, try to expose longer. You will be pleased with the results.
This post will be continued in the future. The goal is to expand it to at least 51 astrophotography for beginners tips collection. Bookmark it and check back later. If you don’t want to miss any future updates (and to grab a free astrophotography ebook), then be sure to subscribe to my newsletter below. Clear skies!