DSLR Astrophotography 101
If you’re like most photographers out there, chances are, once the sun goes down so does your camera. The purpose of this blog series is to encourage the opposite. At OPT, we intend to bring the art of astrophotography to the everyday photographer, beginner, and expert alike.
Considering this is the first course in the series, we’ll cover the basics: What you have, why you have it, what you need, and what to shoot (hint: The Milky Way is a great start). We’ll get more into the technical parts as these blogs go on but for now, we just want to help you get started.
Before we get into it, we have just a couple of things to clarify:
This is not for smartphone photography, although you may get some pointers from it.
We’re assuming you have a basic understanding of f/stops and shutter speeds and their effects.
Now let’s begin!
Welcome, to DSLR Astrophotography 101
So you’ve got yourself a camera, or you’re getting one very soon, and are already researching your style to start this hobby (career?). Perfect!
A mirrorless camera works as well and for our purposes, we will refer to DSLR and mirrorless as the same thing. Let’s not ignite any debate about the actual differences here. Other forums do that well enough without us.
Whether you’ve got the best or the least expensive DSLR, a Canon, Fujifilm, or anything else, it doesn’t matter. The sky doesn’t care what brand you have, so why should we? All that really matters is you have a camera you’re comfortable with and you are eager to photograph the night sky.
As we all come to realize in astrophotography and general photography as a whole, it isn’t necessarily the gear you have that makes the difference, but rather how that gear is used.
A DSLR is the prime choice for many reasons, but we’ve narrowed the list down to the most important for astrophotography. If you’ve done any camera shopping in your life, the first reason comes as no surprise.
DSLR cameras are everywhere. Your cousin has one, your friend’s dog has one but never uses it, and for some people, it’s a fashion statement more than anything else.
Large Sensor Size for Your Dollar
To give some context, astrophotography is another one of those hobbies with its own extremely specialized equipment and the cameras are no exception. These cameras vary in size quite a bit, but more often than not, are larger than your average DSLR. Another difference we find is that with the astronomy-dedicated cameras comes a smaller sensor for a higher price. Commonly, you’ll find an astronomy-dedicated camera with a smaller sensor and lower resolution than a DSLR camera, but cost several hundred to thousands more than the DSLR.
The sensor size will factor into the Field of View (FOV) of your images. Just like when you compare a full-frame sensor to an APS-C or 4/3rds sized sensor, the sensor with the larger surface area will always have a wider angle of view. This is advantageous because a larger FOV will allow you to capture larger segments of the night sky, meaning you can capture the entirety of the Milky Way. When we compare DSLRs to astrophotography cameras, the majority of “affordable” astronomy cameras are often smaller than 4/3rds DSLRs; astronomy cameras with sensors bigger than a full-frame camera will cost thousands to tens of thousands more. Slide the tab below from left-to-right and vice versa to see the difference.
When it comes to pixels, pixel size will factor into the detail in your images. A smaller pixel size will yield a higher resolution, resulting in a sharper image--provided all other factors are equal. Another perk that is not often talked about is when images are downsized. Higher megapixel images when scaled down will remove more noise through interpolation. The more megapixels you have, the less noise you’ll see in your final print or Instagram post.
DSLRs are mass-produced for a market that demands higher resolutions and more megapixels. To put this into perspective, the average pixel size for a Canon DSLR is 4.38 microns. The sensors that are used in today's astronomy cameras that are made by On Semiconductor (formerly Kodak) have an average pixel size of 8.36 microns. The lowest megapixel camera offered by Canon has 18 mp, while the highest megapixel count for astronomy cameras with On Semiconductor sensors is 16.8 mp.
We’ve touched on this a little bit already but to drive it home, the biggest DSLR bodies are still usually smaller and lighter than a high-quality, astronomy-dedicated camera. When taking size into account, we have to consider the entirety of the system required for that camera, which is extensive for the astronomy camera.
DSLR Astrophotography Gear
"Portable" Astronomy-Dedicated Camera Setup
A common DSLR with lens won’t be more than a few pounds, so bringing it somewhere is pretty easy. Total weight is determined by the type of gear you’re planning to buy for your camera, or what you already have. We really don’t need much for our purposes here, so the question is what will you bring?
A huge bonus to our simple setup is that it’s battery-powered. No matter the kind of setup we feel like bringing out, we can always pack extra batteries. Astronomy-dedicated cameras, on the other hand, require continuous AC power to take a photo, plus you need to power the computer controlling it.
Finally, when it comes to “true” portability, the mirrorless camera will always come out on top--but not by too much. Nonetheless, it doesn’t matter to us, because any of these are fine choices for astrophotography.
Just like a painter has more than one brush and a guitarist needs more than the D-string, a photographer should have more than one lens. You’ll want more lenses in your life, so grab at least a couple, to begin with. Having one lens means you'll be taking only one kind of shot. Expand your imaging skills and discover your best types of photographs.
Somewhere down the road, you might even want to attach your camera to a telescope and do a real deep-dive into the cosmic landscape. This gives a lot of options. A $15 T-ring allows you to adapt a camera to most telescope types out there. This is something we’ll cover extensively later in this blog series, so stay tuned if you’re interested!
The keyword here is “relatively.” These are relatively inexpensive compared to astronomy-dedicated cameras and, of course, all of the required equipment required for those.
DSLRs are right around the same price for a beginner product. Something to note is that while they are termed “beginner,” these may very well last you for years to come with no need for replacement. It’s not hard to find an excellent camera body that will last you for more than five years for under $800 if it’s taken care of.
Looking to spend even less? Just shop the used section for something in your price range. One of the best places we recommend to pick up used gear is KEH.
The Essential Function of Your Camera
To the average photographer, a long exposure might be one second, or maybe two when indoors. For astrophotography, one or two-second exposure is nothing. We’ll start at five or ten seconds to test out a few settings and go from there. It’s common to have a standard shutter speed somewhere between 30 seconds and 15 minutes, depending on how dim the object you’re photographing is and on your lens' focal length. But we'll get to that later.
Other Necessary Starting Equipment
A Sturdy Tripod
In any new venture, it’s always best to build upon a sturdy foundation. In this venture, that foundation is your tripod. This is of utmost importance in your camera setup and skimping on this will ruin your experience from the start. So do yourself a favor and spring for the best one you can afford. As we always tell ourselves and our friends: “Buy once, cry once.” We’re better off making that single big purchase on a reliable product and never worrying about it again.
This is one of the best accessories a person getting into DSLR astrophotography can grab. An intervalometer, if you don’t already know, is a device we connect to our camera to control the shutter for whatever duration we desire. These can also be programmed to take multiple exposures in sequence, which is perfect for when you’re interested in image stacking.
Conveniently a handheld remote operated by your thumb, and hands-free exposure settings on your camera, it makes imaging easier. With an intervalometer, you get excellent stability so there’s no chance of shaking your camera by accidentally touching it to take your shot.
Photo Processing Software
Chances are, your favorite photo wasn’t taken in a single shot, nor was it unprocessed. Processing is like popping the perfect pie into the oven and baking it to golden glory. You know the pie is amazing, now let’s make it even better.
Most photographers already have a subscription to Photoshop--and rightly so! Photoshop is an excellent tool to get started with and will bring you a long way into the hobby.
Another step you might want to take is image stacking. For those who don’t know, this is how you can maximize the detail in your images by stacking multiple images on one another. It’s more complicated than that, but we’ll be covering that topic in-depth later in this series as well.
Nice to Have
If you’re looking for something that’s nice to have right now, and perfect for the basics, the Astro Products Milky Way Focus Filter and Dew Destroyer are right for you. Dave Lane, the creator of these products, made these specifically for wide-field DSLR astrophotography and has gotten astounding images using them.
The Milky Way Focus Filter aids you in getting pinpoint image sharpness in seconds, ensuring your photo will be flawless. Each one of the photos on his Facebook page was aided by the Focus Filter. If you’re going to get one of these, we recommend grabbing the largest size to make sure it’ll fit your lens. You can always adapt the larger version to a smaller lens, but if the filter is too small, you’ll never get it onto a big lens.
The Dew Destroyer is more situational, but if you’re taking pictures in cold weather, like frigid, this little heater strap wraps around your lens and prevents it from fogging up.
What Should I Take Pictures of First?
Where else to start but the night sky itself? Just aim to something that interests you in the night sky and capture the cosmos above. Maybe keep some of the surrounding landscape in your shot if you’re into it. That always looks cool!
You might prefer those glorious Moon shots. No matter how much of an enemy to astrophotography the Moon can be, it is still nice to gaze upon in a serene setting.
For those of you looking out for the Milky Way, it's always there. The only issue is if we’re not in Milky Way season, roughly winter into early spring (fall and summer if you’re from down under), you’ll be waiting well into the night for it to rise to a respectable height in the sky.
Going into the spring and early summer months, we enter galaxy season with our night skies facing outward from the Milky Way. This is when we’re better off aiming at galaxies. You can easily find any of these with astronomy observing smartphone apps like Celestron’s SkyPortal. Keep in mind a long focal length telescope is going to be absolutely necessary for galaxy season.
Where you start makes no difference in the end. As long as you get out under the (hopefully) clear skies and get started, you’re doing it right! Everything else will ultimately fall into place.
Share Your Shots with Us!
We’re always stoked to see images from our team and our friends, so send what you’ve got our way! Every month we have a photo contest on Instagram with the chance to win an OPT gift card!
Another place we all share what we love is our gallery site, Every Clear Night. Go check it out!
We hope you’ve enjoyed this first entry in our DSLR Astrophotography course and are excited to get somewhere dark!
That’s All, Folks!
But before we go we’d like to leave you with a little truth of the trade that’s good to internalize: Astrophotography is not hard, it just requires patience. If you take your time, you’ll be imaging like a pro soon enough.
Members of the OPT Team choosing a celestial object to focus on at the Blue Jay Campgrounds in Lake Elsinore, CA.
Next up in this series, we’ll be covering exposures and all the little details that come with getting that perfect image. Hopefully we’ll see you there! Stay safe, and keep looking up!
Still not sure if your setup is good enough? Need some extra advice on what to do first? Talk with us in the comments below! We’re here to help you in any way we can.