Astrophotography explained: Learn how to shoot the stars
A photographer shares her top tips for getting started in astrophotography, and a dark sky expert tells us where to stargaze around Britain
Want to enter the 2023 Reader’s Digest photo competition but aren’t sure where to start? Try looking up! Capturing the cosmos from the palm of your hand—better yet, from a tripod—may feel daunting, but you don’t have to have expensive equipment to get started. With a bit of patience and a clear night, you can take lovely photos of the moon, stars, and beyond.
Get your gear
They say the best camera is the one you have with you, and for the most part, it’s true.
“The phones are so good today; I’ve seen people capture auroras with an iPhone 13 almost perfectly,” says Sara Lindström, a travel and outdoor photographer based in Boden, Sweden. From the northern reaches of Lapland, Lindström hosts photography workshops and retreats to help fellow enthusiasts connect with wild places—and there’s no untamed environment quite like the night sky.
You'll be surprised by the quality of images you can capture on your phone
“If you want to get really high-quality shots, you’ll need a DSLR or a mirrorless camera,” she says, adding that “the main thing is to have a lens with a wide aperture—ideally like a 2.8, but at least below 4.”
Aperture, measured in f-stops, is one of the three main functions of a camera that controls the amount of light allowed into the sensor. Aperture works with ISO and shutter speed to form what’s referred to as the exposure triangle, and for astrophotography, you’ll need a wide opening to maximise light input.
“That’s really the main thing when it comes to equipment,” says Lindström. “Oh, and a sturdy, sturdy tripod. That’s essential.”
Switch up your settings
Exposure is key when it comes to night sky photography—and so is your camera’s focus. What a letdown to think you’ve captured a series of great shots only to pull them up on your computer and find that they’re actually blurry.
“Setting the focus is step one, which can be the tricky part,” Lindström cautions. “You need contrast to be able to find the focus. If you have a moon, that’s great; you can use the moon as a light source because you’ll have the contrast between the night sky and the bright moon.”
"Exposure is key when it comes to night sky photography—and so is your camera’s focus"
If there’s no moon, Lindström suggests using a bright star, a distant street light, or, if you’re shooting with company, send your companion out at least 10 metres with a torch or headlamp and use that beam as a light source.
“There are different ways of doing this, but what I do is put my camera on autofocus to find that initial focus, then I switch it to manual focus to lock it in. This way, when I press the shutter later, the camera won’t be searching.” Of course, if you’re out shooting for some time, you’ll likely need to check on and redo your focus setup. “Just keep an eye on that,” says Lindström. She also recommends setting a two-second timer to avoid camera shake from pressing the shutter button.
Get to know your camera settings
Once your focus is locked in and your aperture is wide open, it’s time to set your ISO and shutter speed. This is where you’ll want to take a few test shots and see how things are coming together. Generally, keeping a low ISO is favourable to avoid unwanted grain—but this setting will vary depending on lighting conditions and your camera’s capability.
According to Lindström, it’s best to experiment with shutter speed and leave any changes to the ISO as your last step. She recommends starting with a shutter speed of five seconds and seeing what happens. Too dark? Try increasing it to 10 seconds. Just play around and adjust as you go. “But be careful if you go above 30 seconds,” she says, warning that with such a slow shutter speed, you may see movement in the stars. If you’re shooting dancing auroras, you’ll definitely need a faster shutter to freeze the movement.
“Just keep checking the shots throughout your shoot and adjust accordingly.”
Lindström’s final tip is simply to be prepared. Long exposures tend to drain camera batteries, so bring extras. Keep a soft cleaning cloth handy to wipe condensation from your lens or screen.
"You won’t want to call it quits on a shoot due to cold fingers or toes"
If it’s cold out, bring a pair of gloves and dress accordingly—you won’t want to call it quits on a shoot due to cold fingers or toes.
Discover a Dark Sky
You might be surprised to learn that the UK has 17 official International Dark Sky Places—perfect for exploring the “Beautiful Britain” theme of our photo competition.
“These are undoubtedly the most reliable places to experience the natural night in the UK, because the quality of the darkness is protected by laws and policies that limit light pollution in those areas,” explains Megan Eaves, DarkSky UK Media Relations Manager. “They include a number of certified Dark Sky Parks and Reserves, including our newest location, Europe’s first Dark Sky Sanctuary in Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island), Wales.”
Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island), Wales, is Europe's first Dark Sky Sanctuary
Eaves says that the International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) programme was founded by DarkSky International in 2001 to encourage the care and keeping of dark places. “IDSPs exist because of the communities and people who live in them and want to protect and restore the natural nighttime environment for the health of people and the planet.”
Many of Britain’s designated Dark Sky Places are accessible by train or bus, so why not keep an eye on the forecast and plan a shoot on the next clear evening? The Reader’s Digest photo competition is open for submissions until 5pm on May 12, 2023.
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