Astrophotography for beginners: best tips, tools and settings.

The night sky can be the ultimate canvas for a photographer — there’s something magnetic about it that keeps people looking up at the stars. With the right equipment and some help from our expert photographers, join your fellow stargazers in mapping out deep space with our astrophotography tips.

Camera shooting astrophotography pictures in the night sky.

What is astrophotography?

 

Astrophotography is the process of photographing objects in space, such as the moon and the stars, as well as capturing special celestial events like meteor showers and comets.

 

For stargazing professionals, astrophotography is simply a matter of pointing a big-budget telescope at the night sky and letting sophisticated imaging equipment do its thing.

 

For hobbyists and amateurs dealing with a more limited field of vision, the process takes patience, discipline and a knowledge of photography techniques that can produce the desired effect on any camera setup. Either way, the results can be spectacular in themselves.
 

Types of astrophotography.

 

Night sky time lapse.
 

A beautiful night sky milky way star trails and the trees

 

This technique uses time lapse to capture distinct trails of light in the night sky.

“Even though your camera isn't moving because it's on a tripod, everything else is moving because you're on a rotating planet,” says photographer Jeff Carlson.

Meteor shower composite.
 

geminid meteor shower 2020 including the milky way and a tree line of pine and spruce trees.

 

This stunning image seems to capture the path of several sightings of meteors in the night sky. It’s a composite of individual streaking trails over time, placed into the same moment.

“You don’t want all the stars to look blurry because the planet has shifted slightly,” says Carlson.

Milky Way photography.

Capturing a field of stars, or starscape, with space photography.

Photographing our galaxy is, for many, the pinnacle of taking pictures. Provided you’re working in a place with zero light pollution and with the right camera equipment, it’s also very achievable.

“If you want to do astrophotography or night photography, you want cameras with larger sensors. High-quality cameras that shoot ISO 6,400 and up are going to give you cleaner images.”
Photographer Derek Boyd.
 

Constellation composite.

Orion and canis minor constellations and sirius above horizon on a cold winter night

 

Here you’ll see the Orion and Canis Minor constellations, as well as Sirius. A constellation composite captures each point at its brightest and combines them to create a vivid image of the constellations in all their glory.

 

Moon phase landscape.

young crescent moon with the dark side in sight

 

The waxing and waning moon always adds drama to the landscape below. It’s also one of the easier images to produce as it may not require specialist equipment or a special effort to find low light pollution areas.

 

Solar transit.

Venus Transit

 

Solar transit occurs when an object such as another planet comes between our view of the sun.

 

Planetary Imaging

Jupiter with the great rite spot and the shadow of Io

 

If you’re looking to create a deep sky photography rig for capturing detailed images of celestial bodies, you’ll need some more advanced equipment — most likely an equatorial mount, a telescope, and a guide telescope.

 

Moon surface imagery.

The picture shows the super moon (full moon) over the city of Bottrop in North Rhine-Westphalia with a clear night sky.

 

Using a telescope, you can take truly spectacular images of celestial bodies. This style of photography requires a bit more equipment than your standard photo adventure. Find more about the kit you’ll need for astrophotography below.

 

How to do astrophotography: tips from the experts.

 

Whether you’re interested in creating moody, moony landscapes, or you want to see directly into the heart of our galaxy using deep-sky photography, our experts can show you how. Capture and edit images that will change the way we see the stars with this astrophotography tutorial.

 

How to take astrophotography images.

 

To get the best photos, you want a dark sky far away from light pollution that will otherwise reduce the quality of your images. If you have a favourite hiking spot, pack up your tripod and get out there (provided the weather forecast is a clear night sky, that is).

Once you’ve found your spot, here are some key considerations for capturing your astrophotos:

 

Getting in focus.

 

You can compensate for most other side effects as you edit, but if your camera is out of focus, there’ll be precious little you can salvage from hours of shooting. Train your camera on the brightest stars you can see, then switch to your display screen. Experiment with your camera’s exposure and ISO to allow more light into the sensor. You’ll need to rein these back before you can take a decent picture, but you should be able to take some test shots to ensure the image is framed just how you want it.

 

Calibration frames.

 

Calibration frames can reduce the amount of noise in your final images. A light frame (what you’re shooting in the sky) contains signal and noise. When stacking your images at the editing stage, calibration frames are important to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio. You can create bias, flat and dark frames by shooting while your telescope is running ‘hot’ and generating the same noise – but with the lens cap on to filter out the signal.

 

Securing your tripod.

 

Ensure your tripod is locked securely into position as you shoot, and that you’ve given it a solid base to stand on. Any knocks or shakes in the middle of an exposure will ruin the image.

 

Use your histogram.

 

Your camera’s histogram function can be difficult to get to grips with. But ultimately it can help you take better photos by making the best use of the readouts to tell you if there are issues with contrast or clipping of the blacks you’re capturing. Learning how to read a histogram will help.

 

Practice and patience.

 

Producing the kind of astrophotography that would make NASA’s mind boggle is going to take some time. Practise your techniques and find the style that suits you best.

 

How to edit astrophotography images.

 

A huge part of the astrophotography process involves editing and tweaking images to produce their maximum colour potential. You’ll have images that look washed out due to light pollution or other factors. Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom give you the tools to make your images look crisp and clean.

 

Here are a few things to look out for as you use astrophotography software to improve what’s on your camera roll. Don’t worry if your initial images lack any real drama – this is where your software comes in.

 

Stacking images.

 

You may find that shooting at long exposures leads to growing noise levels that editing software alone can’t compensate for. That’s why it’s better to take as many single images of your shot as possible and stack them at the editing stage. It’ll take at least five good shots for you to notice improvements, but aim for 20 or so.

Night photos in the ukrainian carpathian mountains with a bright starry sky and the milky way

 

30-30-30.

 

Deep space imagery isn’t a perfect black. There will always be unpredictable factors like light pollution, which will alter the colours no matter how hard you try to account for it. You can neutralise the effects of these outside phenomena by setting your RGB to a dark grey of about 30-30-30.

 

Adjusting contrast.

 

Some eye-catching images of the night sky are the result of photographers’ skilful use of colour settings to put as much visual distance between lights and darks as possible. This is known as increasing the dynamic range of an image, and involves increasing the contrast of an image so that whites appear whiter, and blacks appear blacker. It’s a very delicate balancing act with your image’s colour settings, but one that can make your night sky photography stand out.
 

Vibrant picture of the stars captured with astrophotography.

 

Colour saturation.

 

Given as a score of 0 to 100, where 0 is pure colour and 0 is grey, you may find your image’s colour saturation a bit on the low side. You can increase the saturation to add some character to individual elements of an image. Be careful though as too much can also increase the overall noise in the image.

 

Levels and curves.

 

The levels adjustment corrects the tonal range and colour balance of an image. This is achieved by adjusting intensity levels of image shadows, midtones, and highlights. You can save time when editing a batch of images shot during the same session by creating a pre-set for the levels settings you’ve put in.

 

Essential astrophotography tools.

 

The best astrophotography equipment will vary from user to user depending on budget and product availability. While smartphone cameras are making enormous technological leaps, for astrophotography you’re going to want the benefits of a DSLR camera with interchangeable lenses. And no matter what type of night sky photography you’ve chosen to shoot, a tripod is a must.

 

It’s also a good idea to invest in a digital camera with high ISO potential.

 

“If you want to do astrophotography or night photography, you want cameras with larger sensors, high-quality cameras that shoot ISO 6,400 and up are going to give you cleaner images.” – photographer Derek Boyd


If you’re looking to create a deep sky photography rig for capturing detailed images of celestial bodies, you’ll need some more advanced equipment — most likely an equatorial mount, a telescope, and guide telescope.

Lens selection is key. For introductory astrophotography, get a wide-angle lens with a short focal length. The ability of these lenses to open their apertures wide and capture as much light as possible will help get quality images. Additionally, if you’re trying to capture longer exposures, an equatorial mount will be indispensable. These mounts compensate for the rotation of the Earth, which will help prevent the blurring of your images as the planet moves.

Astrophotography is one of the more equipment-intensive and technical forms of photography, but with an open mind and a determined attitude, you can produce astounding images that make everyone want to stargaze. Remember, astrophotography is an adventure.

 

“With night (and astro) photography, embrace the random things that happen. You can come up with some really cool stuff if you're more in that mindset.” – Professional Photographer Anthony Pidgeon

 

Best camera settings for astrophotography.

 

You may find that you’ll figure out your own way to make the most of the light available with your camera settings – but as a starting point, the following will help you.

 

Aperture.

 

You’ll likely need to use a lower aperture setting (called an f-stop), because while higher f-stops will allow for an image with more depth of field, it will be difficult to get enough light for a good exposure. Because you’re not likely to be drawing attention to depth of field in photos of the stars, higher aperture settings will often be the way to go. Provided you have a tracking platform, an f/4 should produce the results you’re looking for without seeing unwanted trails.

 

Shutter speed.

 

Shutter speed determines how long the shutter on your camera is going to remain open and allow light to hit the film in your camera or its digital sensor. It’s measured in relation to seconds, so a fast shutter speed might be 1/1,000 of a second, while a slow speed might be one second. For night photography, you’re going to have to use a tripod, because you need to use really slow shutter speeds, and you don’t want your image to blur. Try exposures of 5, 8, or even 10 seconds, and examine your results to see what looks best.

 

ISO.

 

ISO refers to how light sensitive the film in your camera is. In modern digital cameras, it refers to the sensitivity of the sensor in the camera to light. Higher ISO settings will result in brighter images, but they will also increase the graininess of your images. For astrophotography, you want to keep the ISO as low as you can (say, 400-1600) while still enhancing the light sensitivity, in order to keep your images of the sky as crisp and clear as possible.

 

White balance.

 

You need to account for the warmth or coolness of the light source you’re shooting with. Cameras come with white balance pre-sets, which works fine when you’re shooting with an automatic white balance in RAW, because it’s possible to edit at a later stage – in JPEG, not so much. Your images may come off with a redder or browner tint due to shooting conditions, so you may want to adjust the white balance to give it that cooler, darker blue.

 

Rule of 500.

 

The 500 rule can be helpful for avoiding unwanted movement in your night sky shots. This calculation will give you the longest exposure in seconds possible using your camera’s settings before the stars start to “trail” – and not in the way you might be hoping for. Divide 500 by the focal length of your lens and you’ll have a rough guess of the maximum exposure to give each shot.

 

Astrophotography: frequently asked questions.

 

Get some answers about making the most of your astrophotography.

 

How hard is astrophotography?

 

The two sides of astrophotography – shooting and editing – each come with their own set of challenges. It may take a while to get to grips with the different astrophotography software you use, just as getting the right shot on your camera can take time. All you can do is practise as much as you can to get the basics right, before putting your own personal stamp on starry night imagery.

 

How much does astrophotography cost?

 

For just the price of your smartphone, you can already shoot images of the night sky. But if you’re looking to expand your craft beyond the ionosphere, you may find that equipment like telescopes, DSLR cameras and all the extra kit is a significant expense. Keep an eye on specialist hobby websites and you might be able to pick up some second-hand deals.

 

Can you make money with astrophotography?

 

As with any field of artistic expertise, it can be difficult to earn a living solely from sales of your work. If you’re serious about astrophotography you may find your work eventually pays off, and you may consider licensing your work for use as stock imagery as you go on.

 

Can you do astrophotography with a phone?

 

It is possible to take images of the night sky using a smartphone. Technological advances have produced some of the finest cameras on the marketplace – right in your pocket. You shouldn’t expect to be able to capture close-up visuals of celestial objects, but thanks to the Lightroom app you should be able to do cool things with the images you do take.

 

Where can I stargaze in the UK?

 

The International Dark-Sky Association has a list of approved spots in the UK to indulge in some stargazing. These national parks and places are designated as being free from light pollution and safe to roam at night. Don’t forget to take your own source of lighting like a headlamp, so you can get around safely.

 

Adobe’s astrophotography partners.

 

The following photography experts helped create this guide to astrophotography.

 

  • Jeff Carlson is a photographer and author. He has written several books and is a contributing editor for TidBITS. See Jeff’s work.
     
  • Derek Boyd specialises in property photography. His work spans different styles including candid portraits and astrophotography. See Derek’s work.
     
  • Anthony Pidgeon is based in Portland, Oregon. He has been shooting live music performances since the 1990s. See Anthony’s work.

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