Astrophotography: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide (2020)

In this article, we will cover all you need to know to understand astrophotography as a beginner.

Including what different types of astrophotography there are, what equipment you need, and how to learn to take stunning pictures of the night sky, planets, and more.

Chapter 1: What is astrophotography and what different types are there?

Astrophotography is the art of capturing images of the night sky and objects in space, like stars, planets and galaxies.

The word ‘astrophotography’ is a combination of the words “astronomy” and “photography”, so it is essentially “astronomy photography”.

astrophotography image
A brilliant example of an astrophotography image capturing the Milky Way above the Earth by photographer Talman Madsen.

There are variations in both the different types of astrophotography – as in what is attempting to be photographed – and the techniques in how you are going about capturing the images, heavily determined by what equipment is being used.

There are three main types astrophotography as differentiated by the objects that are being photographed. These are:

  1. Landscape astrophotography
  2. Solar System astrophotography (Lunar, Solar and planetary)
  3. Deep sky astrophotography

We’ll go through each of these in more detail now.

1. Landscape astrophotography

Landscape astrophotography is the combination of traditional landscape photography and astrophotography.

It is the practice of taking photos that feature the stars and the night sky whilst including some features of the landscape of the Earth.

landscape astrophotography (1)
A great example of landscape astrophotography by photographer Ivan Slade.

Landscape astrophotography can produce stunning images that can be appreciated by just about anyone and are growing in popularity due to the growth in image sharing platforms like Instagram. In addition, the increasing popularity of photography as a hobby, and improvements in technology making equipment cheaper and accessible to more people contribute to this.

There are few people that cannot be blown away by an image of the Milky Way over a lake or mountain. Landscape astrophotography is the most popular type of astrophotography because it can be done with relatively little equipment – just a good camera, lens and tripod – that can be used for regular photography, is really all you need to get going. More on this later in this article.

Landscape astrophotography can even be done with a good smartphone camera, but most commonly (and most effectively) it will be done with a good DSLR or mirrorless camera fitted with a wide-angle lens.

Frequently, landscape astrophotography will involve capturing our galaxy, the Milky Way, above the Earth.

The process of capturing the Milky Way adds a fair bit of work and planning as opposed to just capturing a regular starry sky on a clear night but the results can be astounding and extremely rewarding when it pays off.

landscape astrophotography milky way (1)
Image combining landscape photography with astronomy imaging by Abdul Dremali.

The image above is a good example of landscape astrophotography. The photographer has captured the Milky Way in a remote location (see here for how this picture was taken).

landscape astrophotography selfie
Marcus Cote’s ‘Milky Way Selfie’.

A variation on this is to include people in the image – see for example the ‘Milky Way selfie’ photo above by photographer Marcus Cote.

Other variations can include the photographer’s own lighting or other objects (see more good examples of this by Laura Krause).

Another popular thing to shoot that falls within the category of landscape astrophotography are star trails.

Star trails
Star trails image by Michael Ver Sprill.

The star trail effect is created by a long exposure photograph staying focused on one point for an extended period whilst the Earth goes about its natural rotation.

In addition, capturing shooting stars and meteor storms can be a variant of landscape astrophotography, provided the image include some aspect of the Earth’s landscape.

You may also see landscape astrophotography referred to as “widefield astrophotography”.

Widefield astrophotography refers to taking a picture of a large (i.e. wide) section of the sky at one time. Both landscape astrophotography and deep sky astrophotography (covered in number 4 below) can fall into the category of widefield astrophotography since they both typically involve capturing large objects like galaxies in the image.

2. Solar System astrophotography (Lunar, Solar and planetary)

Photographing the Moon and the Sun is known, respectively, as lunar astrophotography and solar astrophotography.

The most common way of doing this is with a DSLR or mirrorless camera and a telephoto lens that allows you to zoom in to capture the details of these bodies. It can also be done with a telescope – with the telescope essentially taking the place of the zoom lens.

Lunar astrophotography
An example of lunar astrophotography by Sebastian Voortman.

The moon makes a great and relatively easy object to shoot for astrophotography beginners since anyone can see and locate it and because it is so close (relatively) to the Earth.

The moon goes through different phases throughout the month which offer different opportunities and occasionally there will be phenomena like the ‘blood moon’ (a total lunar eclipse).

Solar photography is similar in such that the sun is no problem for anyone to locate in the sky, but requires strong filters because of the extreme brightness of the sun. Remember to never look directly at the sun through a camera, telescope or other such equipment.

Burning Sun by Jakob Halskov on 500px.com
Solar astrophotography by Jakob Halskov.

To photograph the sun you need solar viewing glasses so that you can look at it to aim your camera at the bright sun and specialist solar filters to be fitted on the lens.

Also part of solar system astrophotography is planetary astrophotography.

This is the practice of photographing the planets and other major objects in our solar system. It is similar in many ways to lunar and solar photography, but what you are shooting will not be obviously visible to the naked eye and so is a whole different challenge.

This includes the seven other planets of the solar system (not including Earth) and other objects like dwarf planets (for example, Pluto), or the moons of other planets.

Planetary astrophotography is most commonly done with a camera attached to a telescope. This is because you need the focal power of the telescope to pick out and focus on specific objects in space.

Planetary astrophotography requires a greater degree of astronomical knowledge, as you need to know what will be in the sky above you when you want to shoot and how to locate it.

This is opposed to landscape astrophotography where there will always be stars when there is a clear sky, or lunar and solar photography where anyone can locate the sun or moon in the sky.

It is not, however, as challenging as the final type in our list – deep sky astrophotography.

3. Deep Sky astrophotography

The third type of astrophotography is deep sky astrophotography.

deep sky astrophotography
Image of a galaxy called M81 by Ken Crawford.

This is the practice of capturing images of “deep sky objects”. The definition of a deep sky object is any astronomical object that is not an individual star or an object with our own Solar System (source). Generally, these are galaxies, nebulae (huge clouds of dust or gas), and other far off phenomena.

In general, deep sky astrophotography refers to the process of identifying a specific galaxy or other deep sky astronomy object and photographing it.

There are ways that astrophotographers can team up and use the equipment of others to get imaging data. See our interview with Deep Sky West for an example of how remote astrophotography observatories work.

Beyond amateur astrophotography, much deep sky astronomy imaging comes from NASA and other space agencies that send telescopes into space. The most famous example of this is the Hubble Space Telescope, which has sent back countless stunning images.

hubble deep sky astrophotography
Image of the Sombrero galaxy, Messier 104 (M104), taken with Hubble data. Credit NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

There are of course crossovers between these four types of astrophotography. For instance, if you capture the moon or one or more of the planets brightly in a landscape astrophotography image, then you have also engaged in planetary astrophotography but the categorization is useful and you will find it used commonly.

Now, once you know what you want to shoot, we can move on to deciding what equipment you need.


Chapter 2: Astrophotography Equipment

As well as variations in what you are trying to shoot, the equipment that you have will also heavily influence the type of astrophotography that you will be able to do.

You can broadly categorize two ways of going about astrophotography – without a telescope and with a telescope.

1. Astrophotography without a telescope

The most common set up for a beginner astrophotographer is to have three things:

  1. Camera
  2. Lens (either wide-angle or telephoto, depending on what you want to shoot)
  3. Tripod

This is the essential kit for landscape astrophotography and for capturing beautiful images of stars in the sky.

2. Astrophotography with a telescope

The other way to go about astrophotography is to do it with a telescope.

Some of the equipment will be the same as the above, but you will essentially be swapping out the camera lens and replacing it with the telescope – the telescope effectively is the lens.

Essentially, your equipment will be made up of three main things:

  1. Camera
  2. Telescope
  3. Mount

Read our full guide to what equipment you need for astrophotography.

We also have the below articles covering individual items:

We also did an analysis of all the equipment used by the finalists of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, so you can see what those producing some amazing images are using.

A note on smartphone astrophotography

What you can do and the results you can expect will be limited compared to the methods outlined above, but it can be done and smartphone camera performance gets better every year.

See here for our guide to smartphone astrophotography.


Chapter 3: Astrophotography tools & tips – planning your shot

This chapter is about planning your astrophotography images by taking advantage of the best tools and guidance available.

There are three main things to consider when planning your shots:

  1. Location and finding the right place to shoot
  2. The weather and finding the right conditions
  3. Timing and finding what you want to shoot

1. Location and finding the right place to shoot

Even if you’ve got the greatest equipment in the world, you’ll struggle to get great shots unless you find the right places to shoot from.

A key thing for this is light pollution. For astrophotography, you need dark skies. If you live in or around a city or reasonable size town your images will be affected by the glare generated upwards from artificial lighting from streets and buildings.

Therefore you need to locate places to shoot your images from away from light pollution. There are a number of tools to help you do this, including:

light pollution astrophotography
You can use websites like Blue Marble to find better spots to shoot your astro images with less light pollution.

The second key element of location is the composition of your shot. This is particularly important for landscape astrophotography where you are going to want to capture the Milky Way over the earth

Google Maps (with street view) is a good tool for visualizing locations from your computer. Other applications provide augmented so that you can get an idea of what your shot might look like ahead of time. Tools to help you with this include:

2. Weather and finding the right conditions

To achieve great astro images you will also need clear skies – i.e. no clouds.

Simple weather forecast sites and apps should help with this but there are also some with photographers in mind, including Dark Sky.

Another thing to have to factor in is the phase of the moon. The moon goes through a monthly cycle and you will want no moon in the sky when you shoot as it is a source of light pollution.

PhotoPills includes a moon phase calendar but there are also some good free sites too, like Time & Date.

3. Timing and finding what you want to shoot

Finally, you’ll then need to understand what is going to be in the sky above you when you shoot. Taking the example of the Milky Way, its core can only be shot during certain annual seasons which differ according to where you are in the world:

  • In the Northern hemisphere, the Milky Way core is visible from April to July, with June being the peak time.
  • In the Southern hemisphere, it will be available to shoot from February to October, with July being the peak time.

Stellarium is a great planetarium website that allows you to work out when the Milky Way, planets and more will be visible from your location. Another option is In-The-Sky.org.

For more tools and some alternatives to those included here, see the best apps for astrophotography.


Chapter 4: Astrophotography settings

What settings you use to achieve astronomy images will obviously depend on what it is you are shooting and what equipment you are using but there are some general good practices to follow.

If you are using a DSLR or similar camera, then you are going to need to put your camera in manual mode and pay attention to three settings in particular:

  1. ISO
  2. Aperture
  3. Exposure length

1. ISO

ISO is a changeable setting on a camera that is adjusted according to the light available when you are shooting. When you put it higher, you are able to shoot better in low light.

For regular photography, you would use a low ISO for daytime or other well-lit photography, and higher ISO for nighttime or when the lighting is not as good.

You might think then that you would want a high ISO for astrophotography? However, this is not necessarily right.

The downside of using a high ISO is that it degrades the image quality. Pictures taken with high ISO tend to have what is called “noise” on the image – a kind of graininess. Noise can be hard to identify to a beginner but with experience you will learn to see it very clearly.

With astrophotography, you will have to learn through trial and error what works for you and your camera, but generally you will be taking long exposures and putting the ISO as low as you can (this may still be quite high though).

You may also stack the images (see below for details on this), or you may be using some kind of tracking mount to enable you to take even longer exposures, and so these mean you can keep the ISO low.

Generally, you want to aim for as low ISO as possible to get the best quality images but you will need to practice and learn the limits and capabilities of your camera and equipment.

A couple of final things to note are:

  1. That better and more modern cameras are can deliver better images even at higher ISO settings
  2. You can “de-noise” images in post-production

2. Aperture

Aperture refers to how wide open the part of the lens is that collects the light for the image. As covered in our overview of lens earlier in this article, you will want to be using a lens capable of a fast aperture.

You will then want to set it to be at the lowest (most wide) setting that it allows.

Again though, there is scope for experimentation and often you may find that putting your aperture down a small amount from the widest setting will give you a sharper image.

3. Exposure length

This is the amount of time that your camera will take to collect light for one image.

There is a good rule of thumb for working out the exposure length you should use for astrophotography which is called the 500 rule.

This is worked out by dividing 500 by the focal length of the lens. The answer given is the longest exposure time before you start to see star trails. Some example calculations would be:

  • 12mm lens = 42 seconds
  • 18mm lens = 28 seconds
  • 55mm lens = 9 seconds

There is also a more advanced calculation called the NPF rule. This is incorporated into a great tool below from PhotoPills that allows you to put your camera model and focal length and it calculates your maximum exposure time.

4. Other settings

Your camera should give you the option of shooting in RAW or JPEG.

If you are going to do some post-production (which you will likely need to produce high-quality astrophotography images) you will want to shoot in Raw.

Raw images retain more data for you to be able to play around with and adjust afterwards. Whereas if your camera is set to convert images to jpeg then it does some of the post-production for you in the camera and reduces the scope of what you can edit after.

This is why jpeg images might look better straight from the camera (and be the most suitable for other, less challenging, photography) but they will limit what you can do afterwards to bring out the full potential of your astro images.

In addition, there are some other key tweaks you need to make to your camera and lens settings:

  1. Use manual focus on the lens, not auto-focus
  2. Turn off any noise reduction functions within the camera
  3. Disable image stabilization on your lens
  4. Set white balance to daylight

Chapter 5: Learning astrophotography

Whenever you ask great astrophotographers for their best tips on how to improve, they pretty much all say a version of “just get out there and get practicing”.

However, whilst there is definitely truth in that, as a beginner you are pretty much starting with no knowledge, and a little bit of assistance and direction can help a lot in getting better results quicker.

Therefore, depending on how you learn best, you might like to read books, take courses, subscribe to websites and mailings, join clubs, or even seek qualifications.

1. Astrophotography courses

Taking courses on astronomy and astrophotography can be a great way to learn. These can be formal courses offered by an academic type institution, workshops led by experienced astrophotographers, or online learning courses based on video or written instructions.

2. Astrophotography websites & forums

There are some great websites out there to help you learn astrophotography, share your images and ask questions to people with more experience than you.

These are some recommended sites to check out for beginners:

1. Reddit

If you are on Reddit, there are two great subreddits to follow:

  1. Astronomy
  2. Astrophotography

These are great because other photographers share their images – landscapes, planetary, deep sky – and give details of what equipment they used and how they went about capturing the image.

See here for example:

I finally worked out how to use this DSLR mount. First lunar shot I am proud of. from r/Astronomy

The community on these forums are generally pretty good at answering questions (no matter how stupid) from beginners, so if you’re struggling to understand something you can also try dropping a comment under a recent post and you should get a response.

2. Astrobin

This is a great, simple website that encourages photographers to upload their astrophotography images

It’s generally made up of a pretty advanced group of astrophotographers, but that makes it a good place to learn from others.

See here for example, the astrophotographer (Steve Milne) has shared their image along with the details of how they captured it and what equipment they used:

astrobin astrophotography website

You can see from the description that the exposure too more than 42 hours!

3. Cloudy Nights

Cloudy Nights is a great astronomy forum, with lots of good in-depth articles.

It looks a little like an old-school forum but there is a lot of good information to be gleaned from here and there are a lot of advanced contributors.

cloudy nights astrophotography website

4. Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)

Astronomy Picture of the Day is quite legendary and is quite an honor to have one of your images featured on the site.

It’s a pretty simple concept – one feature astronomy image per day, submitted by professional astronomers and members of the public alike – and has been running daily since June 1995.

NASA funds the website and is one of the popular US Federal websites with around 8 million visits a month (source). In NASA’s own words: “It has the popular appeal of a Justin Bieber video.”

You can submit your own photo to be considered for APOD here.

astronomy picture of the day website

5. Flickr & 500px

Flickr and 500px are websites where photographers share their images and join groups to learn from other photographers.

There are some active Flickr groups on astronomy and astrophotography.

flickr astronomy group

6. Instagram

Whilst it’s meant primarily as a platform for smartphone photography, plenty of people share great astronomy pictures there.

At the time of writing (February 2019), there were nearly 1.7 million images on Instagram with the hashtag #astrophotography and nearly 1.9 million with #astronomy.

See here for our list of the best astrophotographers to follow on Instagram.

instagram astrophotography

3. Astronomy and astrophotography clubs

Joining a local club is a good option for a beginner. You can be completely honest about your level and hopefully get some good practical advice on how to advance.

“The best way to learn is to join your local astronomy club or find a mentor online whose work you admire and ask questions. Most people in this hobby are more than willing to share their experiences.” – Tolga Astro

If you are in the US, the Astronomical League has a directory of astronomy clubs.

astronomy clubs usa

Sometimes these groups aren’t always well advertised or easy to find online and so a good bet is to consult local newspapers, notice boards and directories near you.

4. Books

There are a number of great books to help you learn how to shoot the night sky.

My personal favorite is Astrophotography by Thierry Legault.

It can be fairly advanced and mostly focused on deep sky photography but it covers pretty much everything a beginner would need to know in detail.

Astrophotography

See here for some more recommendations of the best astrophotography books.

You may also wish to learn more about astronomy and space in general. In the long run, it’ll definitely help if you want to advance from shooting Milky Way landscapes to deep sky and more advanced astrophotography.

Turn Left at Orion is possibly the most popular astronomy book, covering how to find and spot objects in the sky.

Turn Left at Orion: Hundreds of Night Sky Objects to See in a Home Telescope - and How to Find Them

See here for further recommended books to help you learn astronomy.

5. Photography challenges

If you are a beginner photographer in general, I strongly recommend undertaking a “365 project”. This is committing to taking and publishing one photo every day.

I did this a few years ago and – full disclosure – only lasted three months, but my photography improved vastly in that period.

Just the process of going out every day with your camera (or, like me, taking it on your daily commute to work) and looking for interesting things to shoot really help you get to understand your camera.

You start to learn about lighting at different times of the day and year, and experimenting with different exposure times, ISO etc.

You can toy with landscape, portrait, street and other types of photography. Of course one of the challenges of astrophotography is going out and doing it in the dark, which can be pretty hard to do if you have work the next day, so it’s good to be developing your photography skills without exhausting yourself!

What I did was publish every day on a page I had on 500px. I didn’t want to do it on Facebook or Instagram for people that knew me (you may prefer to do otherwise though), but rather do it to the photography “community”.

You then learn from the response you get from other photographers and I found that people tend to be very helpful in giving small tips to help you improve.

One thing to note, people often start undertaking a 365 project on 1st January as a new year’s resolution, but there is no reason not to start at any time. Just commit to starting on the first day or next month or even just today and set it as your 30/100/whatever day challenge for yourself.

6. Watching Astrophotography videos

There are some really great videos available to watch for free on YouTube.

See our list of the best YouTube astrophotography channels. This includes those that specialize in different types of astrophotography and for different levels of expertize.


Chapter 6: Astrophotography software

We have so far covered astrophotography types, equipment, planning, settings, and learning, and the next thing to consider is software. This serves two main purposes:

  1. Finding the objects you want to shoot (acquisition)
  2. Processing your images to make the most of them

1. Astrophotography acquisition software

As a beginner, Stellarium and PhotoPills are the easiest options for planning your shots, especially if you are concentrating on landscape or planetary astrophotography.

If you are venturing into deep sky photography then you will need more advanced tools like Deep Sky Assistant (DSA).

2. Astrophotography stacking and post-production software

When you are starting out, its best to stick to the popular all-round image processing tools like Lightroom, Photoshop, or even Snapseed on your phone/tablet.

Other more advanced options include:


Conclusion: Putting it all together

If you are looking to get into astrophotography then get going: take your entry-level camera, put the lens as wide as possible, attach it to a tripod, point at the night sky, manually focus on a star, shoot for 15 to 30 seconds, and there you go, you’re an amateur astrophotographer.

It might not be great, but you’ll have taken a big step in the right direction.

Of course there is loads to learn, but that’s partly what makes it such a rewarding hobby, knowing that the pictures you are producing are the result of time, effort and study.

We have covered in this guide:

  1. Different astrophotography types
  2. What equipment to use
  3. Planning your shots
  4. What settings to use
  5. How to learn and improve
  6. What software to use

I hope that covers the basics and you have found this guide useful. If you have any questions – or want to note anything else that should go in this guide – then please let me know in the comments below.

As astrophotographers like to say – clear skies!


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