A big focus among people starting out in astronomy is the ability to photograph the night sky. Whether that means capturing the Milky Way, planets, or stunning nebulae, there is simply no shortage of mind-blowing images from astrophotographers.
Many newcomers wonder how they can do that for themselves. But to produce these types of images — such as from astronomers like Alan Dyer and Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn — takes time, effort, and (to be honest) money.
That’s not to discourage anyone — it can be done, even with limited investment. In the September/October 2021 issue of SkyNews, I offered some tips to get you started. Here, I offer more advice to help you plan and take your first photos of our amazing Universe.
Tip 1: First and foremost, get to know the night sky
This sounds fairly straightforward, but there are a lot of things to see up there. One of the best books is still Nightwatch by Terence Dickinson, first published in 1983. This book provides easy-to-use, simplified sky charts that highlight various features in the sky, such as star clusters and nebulae. If you want something more detailed, you can buy the Cambridge Star Atlas by Wil Tirion.
Tip 2: Get away from light pollution
Most of us live in urban areas, which means we deal with a great deal of light pollution. If you’re able to, try to get out of the city. But it’s not always that easy, particularly if you don’t have access to a car. In that case, try to scope out some places with reduced light pollution, such as a park (but always make sure you’re safe). Living in Toronto, Ontario, for example, I’ll try to head down near the lake where it’s darker and I can see the southern sky quite well. You can also look for astronomy groups who hold viewing parties for the public.
Tip 3: Invest in a camera and tripod
If you’re serious about starting out in astrophotography, you’ll need a fairly decent DSLR camera and a sturdy tripod. If you don’t have a lot of money to invest, you can try looking for used equipment on sites such as Astro Buy & Sell, particularly for cameras. Just remember due diligence and to ask questions. Also, some of these cameras have even been modified to reduce the effects of light pollution. As well, remember to shoot your images in RAW mode, where they will be easier to edit in applications like Photoshop or Lightroom. Editing can do wonders.
Tip 4: Plan ahead
Planning is a must. You need to know where objects will be in the sky, especially how high up they may be. Lower on the horizon, you’ll have a tougher time photographing them. Higher up — at the zenith, for example, is best, as the sky is darker. Also, pay attention to the Moon and where it will be in regard to your target. You don’t want the moonlight washing out what you’ll be photographing. And, of course, it’s also important to pay attention to the phases of the Moon.
Tip 5: Manage expectations
It’s easy to get excited when we see stunning images from astrophotographers, but if you’re starting out, remember jut that — you are just starting out. If you don’t manage your expectations, you’ll likely get frustrated and give up. When Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) whizzed by Earth back in January and February 2023, many people were anxious to get an image of the green comet with its long, outstretched tail. But they were disappointed. Why? Because the images they were looking at were done by accomplished astrophotographers; they took several images with telescopes and processed them. If you tried and just captured a fuzzy greenish blob in your image, that’s okay. You managed to capture a piece of one of the bits left over from the formation of our Solar System.
Tip 6: Some targets for beginners
Lastly, start small. For example, you can start with lunar photography. Try framing it against a forest or urban buildings. As summer begins, there are several objects in the southern night sky that would make amazing photographic targets, such as the Sagittarius Star Cloud and several bright star clusters. There’s also Cygnus, which is another rich region of the Milky Way found in the northeast. Leave your camera shutter open for 10 to 20 seconds and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll see.
But importantly — be sure to start small, and keep practicing.