Jul 112012

Getting started in Astrophotography is easier than you think but mastering it will take a life time. This is a guide for beginners or people with a small amount of experience. I’ll be focusing on taking pictures with nothing but DSLR cameras and regular lenses. No telescope required! The only other piece of equipment you will need is a tripod. If you have another type of digital camera with a “manual” setting you can still follow along though some of the options I talk about may not be available to you. Later on I will go into some other pieces of gear you can buy that will further enhance your ability to take pictures. Finally we will talk about how to process your images in Photoshop as most of the time the image straight from the camera is a bit underwhelming. All the pictures featured in the article were taken by me with a DSLR (either Nikon D300 or Nikon D700).

Milky Way – Nikon D700, 105mm f/3.5, 8x2min, ISO 3200

Did you know?

Some DSLRs can be modified specifically for Astrophotography use. While DSLRs are fine for photographing stars, galaxies, and reflection nebula their weak point is emission nebula because they have an built-in filter to block out certain wavelengths of light. By removing this filter or replacing it with clear glass you can improve the sensitivity for hydrogen-alpha light. One company that will do this to your camera, or sell you a pre-modded one is Hutech. Canon has even released a DSLR specifically for this purpose known as the Canon EOS 60Da. The benefit of that is you still get a full manufacturers warranty.

The downside? This mucks up the color balance of regular daytime shots, so it is not the best option unless you want to use that DSLR solely for Astrophotography.

Choosing A Camera

Any Digital SLR camera should be enough to get you started. If you are looking for a specific camera to buy for this purpose, Canon’s are the most popular for astrophotography but Nikon’s also do fine. The most important reasons for using a DSLR are the large sensor (for better signal to noise ratio), the ability to keep the shutter open as long as you want and the ability to shoot RAW files. This makes full-frame DSLR’s even better because their sensor is larger than regular DSLR cameras. The last basic piece of equipment you need is a tripod.

Other helpful equipment

  • Shutter release cable isn’t absolutely necessary but highly recommended. You can by cheap third-party ones on ebay instead of paying for a genuine one.
  • Anti-fog cloth can help with condensation that builds up on your lens under certain atmospheric conditions at night time. If your lens keeps fogging up this might help.
  • Red flashlight to see what you are doing out in the dark. Using a regular flash light will harm your night vision but red light won’t.
  • A sky tracking mount to take exposures longer than 30 seconds or so. This requires an extra investment so I recommend trying other methods first. I will talk about trackers later.
  • A comfortable chair (you will be waiting a lot) and extra warm clothes if its winter time.
  • Binoculars to enjoy the view while pictures are being taken or to maybe pick out your next target.

Stars over a lone country road
Nikon D700, 24mm f/3.5, 120 seconds, ISO 1600 single exposure

Choosing A Location

Some types of Astrophotography are doable in the middle of the city but that tends to be limited to lunar or planetary photography. Planetary photography requires a telescope but if you have a telephoto lens of at least 300mm or so you can get some nice shots of the moon. Photographing deep sky objects or getting a lot of stars in your image is not very doable in the middle of a city. The good news is just driving for 15 minutes outside of city limits can really improve the sky quality.

I want to shoot… Location
The Moon All you need is a clear sky! This can be done right in the middle of a city.
Night-time landscapes (Starscapes) Starscapes are shots where the landscape is mostly lit by the moon (or stars at exceptionally dark locations) and you will need moderately dark skies for this. Think Suburbs or darker.
Wide-field shots or Constellations
You can get away with doing some of the brighter constellations inside a medium size city as long as you are sheltered from city lights by trees or buildings but outside the city will be best.
Star Trails About the same as Constellations, but as with any Astrophoto the darker the sky the better. If you want to do very long single exposures you need a true dark sky site, but if you plan on stacking many shorter exposures you have a lot more flexibility.
The Milky Way For this it is ideal to be at least 30 miles/50km away from any city or town. You can get away with being closer to the city if the milky way is in the sky opposite the nearest city. For the absolute best milky way images you need to be many hours away from any cities.
Galaxies and Deep-Sky objects The requirements are the similar to Milky Way shots; rural skies or better. Some objects will photography decently even in suburban skies. Some of the bigger objects like Andromeda Galaxy and Orion Nebula can be done with a telephoto lens but you will still need a tracker of some kind to move your camera with the motion of the sky.

Light Pollution

Light pollution is caused by stray man-made light that is aimed at the sky. The main problem for astronomers is it washes out the sky and reduces the amount of stars and deep-sky objects you can see and/or photograph. Aside from the aesthetic problem of the nasty orange haze in the sky instead of stars, light pollution is an incredible waste of energy. Why do we need to light up the sky? If all the light from street lights and outdoor lights was aimed at the ground with proper shades above them to reflect ALL of the light to the ground, you would be able to use lower power lights. Lighting up the sky is akin to leaving all your windows and doors open while you leave your furnace on in the winter. A complete and utter waste of energy. You can find more information at the International Dark Sky Association.

If you live in the USA or parts of Canada you can see how the light pollution is where you live by going to the Dark Sky Finder site. You can also get a good idea of where you would have to go to get dark skies. For other countries if you Google your country name along with “light pollution map” you should hopefully have some luck in finding one.

  22 Responses to “How To Guide: Astrophotography with a DSLR”

  1. Very interesting, just what I needed, especially a list of first targets which I asked for everywhere and get different responses, some very difficult to achieve for me, like M81/m82. My next question sis, what lenses to use on those not specified?

    • Wow M81 and M81 are quite challeging, how did that work out for you? I am still practicing on the moon and jupiter..Now that m42 and M31 are up they are my next targets..even the m31 pic on this article took a lot more skill than a beginner can hope for..

  2. Hello. I love your tutorials. I do have a question. I’m using a Canon Rebel XS and the highest ISO I can get on the camera is 1600. What can I do to get closer and not have the star blur? I tried using my 300mm lens to get the Orion Nebula but it didn’t come out on the Deep Sky Stacker.


    • Try to put your canon in f3•5 then put a speed of 30s instead of bulb option
      Then you can see some changes in your next result

  3. One question, does one have to adjust the white balance? I’ve heard you should take a shot of the night sky and use that for custom white balance. Should it be a 30 sec exposure too? Thanks.

  4. Thanks for the write-up. This is exactly what I am currently trying to get into. I hope my little G.E.M. will be up to the task.

  5. Brilliant work. One small tip for everyone, well it works for me. I live in a semi rural enviroment, with fairly dark skies, and there is a house about 150 metres down the road with an illuminated intruder alarm. To get my focus, i focus on his alarm in autofocus, then switch to manual. This could be done on any external light, street lamp etc.

  6. I have been researching astrophotography for only a week and it has been some what overwhelming. This article breaks it down perfectly and I now have the confidence to purchase equipment and start giving it a try. Great write up.

  7. Great article, really well written and informative. Thanks for sharing.

    I’ve got a Polarie and I use a Velbon QHD-33Q as recommended in the manual. However following recommendations I ordered a manfrotto 496RC2 ball head but it doesn’t fit the Polarie as it has a bigger whole for the screw. How did you solve this issue? Since I see in your picture that you are using a similar Manfrotto ball head?

    Kind regards

  8. I was told the flat frames MUST be taken at the same ISO and orientation of the camera and with same focus of your object when you took your lights. With that said is there directions to build a light-box to install on the camera lens?? All I have read are how to build a light-box to fit on the telescope tube, but with fixed tripod astrophotography we do not use a telescope…our lens is the scope so to speak…so I would like to build a small light-box and attach it to my camera lens for flats…any suggestions/

  9. fabulous article. Thank you for taking the time to produce it. We are going to USA in June and will be visiting Pikes Peak, Monument Valley and Yellowstone and hoping for lots of Big Dark Skies on the way. We have a Nikon D5000 with a selection of lens and hoping for some decent pictures.

  10. The Orion Nebula photo gives people the false sense that this is achievable with a standard dlsr and lens. even if u went more top end, say 5dmiii, you’d still need an extremely expensive lens – canons new 50-1000mm is around the $70,000 mark. i find that quite annoying that u fished to intrigue people with a false sense of graspable achievement

    • I have used a Sigma-DG 50-500mm lens and a Canon 70D and have some excellent pictures of Orion. While still costing around 1.5k, that’s no where near the 70k mentioned above

  11. […] How guide: astrophotography dslr – geartacular […]

  12. You said “piggy back your camera onto the telescope.” and that there are adapters for this. Do you know the manufacturers of any of these adapters? I’m using a NIkon D3100 and a Meade ETX 90 telescope. Thanks

  13. I getting into astrophotography with a Pentax K3 ii, does anyone had any tips for using in camera sensor tracking?

  14. Hi guys am a Sony alpha dslt user I got very good photoresults ,and I can say that Sony is also very good in taking such beauties .so all of you start enjoying .main thing while doing astrophotography is that you need a peacefull climate ,then you can choose freelands with less tress and plants ,but the most important fact is that the place shouldn’t be polluted(shouldn’t be a industrial area etc)
    And the best thing is that you have a astronomy studying friend while you take photos .so he can guide you to different directions and show you several important aspects

    • Hi Bharath raj Kartha, I too use a Sony camera but the RAW files are Sony’s own ARW. How do you use these in any software like Deepskystacker or even Photoshop as ARW is not a recognised file? At the moment I am converting every file to TIFF which is time consuming and I don’t know if it gives me the right results.

      • Hi Garry,
        I have just spotted your comment and must say I am somewhat puzzled. I have a Sony a6000 and import my ARW files directly with no conversion necessary. I use the Adobe CC suite including PS of course.

  15. […] fast forward a bit. I’ve gotten bitten by the astrophotography bug again and I ran across this website describing astrophotography with DSLR cameras. I scoffed a bit at how easy the author makes it […]

  16. I just have a quick question that’s probably pretty obvious: so when you align your tracker to polaris, can you then point your dslr towards anything without any other alignment? Is the only alignment that matters is the tracker?

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