Stargazing

Stargazing - Get Started with Astrophotography

From star trails to epic pictures of the milky way, the beauty of Astrophotography can seem like something that requires years of experimenting and expensive equipment, but actually with some relatively basic equipment and a few tips, you can capture some pretty stunning shots. We spoke to Vanguard ambassador and stargazing enthusiast Danny Kenearly, who gave us his insights into some of the equipment, techniques and tips he uses to get started.

The Darker the Better

Not all star-viewing locations are made equal. It makes sense that if you have other light sources around you, you won’t be able to see subtle lights in the distance, and this is no truer than with stargazing. The less light pollution there is the better, so this means finding the darkest spot you can; eg as far as you can from a town or city. Finding a dark sky location is relatively easy by using this light pollution map. If you’re lucky enough to get to Wales, there is a network of dark sky reserves you can go to. It is amongst one of the most popular places for astrophotography, and its easy access and stunning scenery make it a playground for any photographer.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED

  • The essentials are simple:
  • A camera with an “M” mode
  • A wide-angle lens - F4 or below
  • A sturdy tripod
  • Shutter release cable or intervalometer
  • Red torch
  • Some warm clothes
  • Tea/coffee
  • Some say Jaffa Cakes, others say Mini Cheddars... up to you.

 

Hunt for the Stars

Despite the multitude of pictures of the Milky Way shining online, the window for getting a shot of it is actually relatively small – unless you live on the South Coast. To see it from mid-UK latitude, the season starts around April and lasts until May, and it starts again in mid-August to September due to the loss astronomical darkness in the summer. The best time to see it is 3 days either side of the new moon, so the window is quite small. The good news is, even if you have “missed” the Milky Way season, it just means the ‘core’ is not longer visible. You can still see it, and the sky is pretty well populated with other glorious stars and objects to photograph. For example, the constellation Cygnus is high in the sky in the later summer months, and the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter is visible on the 24th November.

One of our top tips would be to use an app to help you spot the Milky Way. Apps like PhotoPills and Stellarium are great for planning and finding out when and where it will be.

Getting Started; The 500 Rule

The Exposure time is vitally important to get right so we don’t get star trails in our pictures, while capturing as much detail as possible. There are number of methods for working out the correct exposure for your focal length. The easiest method is the well-known 500 rule.

For full frame cameras this would be:

·      Focal length of your lens / 500 = Exposure time 

For APS-C sensors it would be:

·      Focal length / 500 x 1.5 = Exposure time

For sharp stars, this is more accurate:

Shutter speed in seconds = (35 x aperture + 30 x pixel pitch) ÷ focal length

·      Pixel pitch = the camera sensor’s physical width in millimetres ÷ number of pixels in width x 1000 to measure it in microns

Focusing

Focusing can be difficult, so use these tips to help the process.

 

·      Use your lens wide open

·      Focus on a point of light on the horizon first if at the coast

·      Look for any focus aids in the distance, such as radio towers

·      Use the moon at home to practise focusing at night

·      Use live view x10 to focus on stars

 

Settings

ISO – Adjust your ISO setting to allow as much light to come in with the lowest amount of grain. Each camera is different but start at ISO 1600 and go from there.

White balance:  If you expose incorrectly, you are most likely to be greeted with an image that looks slightly orange. Daniel says it’s good practice to use the manual Kalvin settings to get it right in camera, around 4200K as his go-to setting. This will then help you previsualize what’s to come in editing later. 

Image stabilization: This most definitely needs to be turned off, even the slightest vibration can cause the lenses IS to start causing slightly out of focus images.

In camera noise reduction:  This is best turned off.

 

Get a Cleaner Image with a Star Tracker

Knowing where to point a telescope to the proper coordinates in the night sky is an almost cheating, but the use of a Star Tracker will easily help you to do this. A star tracker is a mount that will move at the sidereal rate. Sidereal time is the timekeeping system that astronomers use to locate celestial objects. It is a "time scale that is based on Earth's rate of rotation measured relative to the fixed stars”. A tracker will allow to expose for longer with a lower ISO, allowing for cleaner more detailed images. The image below is an example of just how good a tracker can be.

Image details: Sony A7Rii, Sigma ART 35mm F2.5, Vanguard alta pro 2+ 263, Skywatcher star adventure tracker. Exposure time:180 seconds and ISO 1600

 

Reduce the Noise by Stacking Images

 

Getting these settings right is also ideal if you are wanting to stack images for the sky and foreground. Stacking images reduces the noise allowing the fainter details of the image to stand out above the noise. Stacking images allows the photographer to capture more Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR) and overall it gives a cleaner image. If you want to try stacking images, Sequator is a free program that freezes the foreground in your image and stacks your sky images for you. For example, the image below is a stacked image using Sequator.

 

 

Get a Cleaner Image with a Star Tracker

Knowing where to point a telescope to the proper coordinates in the night sky is an almost cheating, but the use of a Star Tracker will easily help you to do this. A star tracker is a mount that will move at the sidereal rate. Sidereal time is the timekeeping system that astronomers use to locate celestial objects. It is a "time scale that is based on Earth's rate of rotation measured relative to the fixed stars” A tracker will allow to expose for longer with a lower ISO, allowing for cleaner more detailed images. The image below is an example of just how good a tracker can be.

Image details: Sony A7Rii, Sigma ART 35mm F2.5, Vanguard alta pro 2+ 263, Skywatcher star adventure tracker. Exposure time:180 seconds and ISO 1600

 

There is also free software called DeepSkyStacker that will stack all your images and out put them as a tiff ready for editing.

Whether you want to capture the Milky Way or get a closer look of the moon and planets, a telescope is the best way to view the beauty of the night sky. With a smartphone adapter or camera adapter, you can use your own smartphone or camera to capture images of the moon and even the rings of Saturn in stunning detail. Currently we’re giving away free moon filters when you buy selected Celestron telescopes enabling you to see the moon in even more detail. View what's on offer here.

WHAT NEXT?

The above tips give you some tips and techniques to get you started, now you just need to get out there and practice. 

If you do use these tips and post images of your stargazing images, please tag us @jessops and tag #jessopsmoment for a chance to have you photo featured on our social media. 

 

Danny Kenealy is a Vanguard Ambassador based in the North West, which makes access to The Lake District & Wales easy, so he takes full advantage.Spending time under the stars is one of his favourite pastimes when time allows, whether it be taking images or just sleeping out in a sleeping bag. You can follow Danny’s adventures here: Website Facebook Instagram

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