When I was starting out as a photographer, I would always wonder how other photographers created such beautiful and stunning photos of the night sky. These photos made a lasting impression on me and I became immersed in learning not only how to take them with my camera, but also how to edit them in post-processing programs to bring every minute detail, and really make them pop. Here, I’ll share some of the things I’ve learned over the years, that hopefully, can help your images stand out from the rest!
1. Shoot RAW!!!
If you’re using any kind of DSLR or mirrorless camera, chances are it has the ability to shoot in RAW. Unfortunately, this is not a factory setting, but it is easy enough to find. Simply select the menu or settings button, find the “Shooting Menu” or something with a camera icon, and proceed to the Image Quality tab. Here you’ll likely find multiple options to choose from, but the one you want is probably near the bottom. Find the tab that says RAW and has no ” + JPEG ___ ” next to it. Choose this, and now you’ll be shooting in RAW! This is beneficial to not only astrophotography but any and all types of photography. To be honest, I never take my camera off RAW. First, the RAW setting lets the camera to bake color data into your photo files which is extremely important for post-processing. It allows you to adjust the white balance, tint, and any other colors you wish, whereas, in any JPEG form, colors are much more difficult to manipulate. Also unlike JPEG profiles, RAW does not compress your files allowing for sharper, higher resolution photos. This is especially helpful if you plan on printing your images.
2. Settings and Focusing
So, once you have your camera in the RAW setting, you now need to think about how you’re going to take your shot. The first thing I always do is get my composition focused, and there are a few different ways to do this. The first, and ultimately best way is to go to your location while it’s still daytime and focus/compose your shot then and there. This ensures that your photos will be tack sharp and you won’t find any unwanted distractions in your image that you wouldn’t be able to see at night. The next method takes place while it’s dark out and is a little more tricky, but still works nonetheless. First, if there is a bright object around you, try and autofocus on that. This usually does the trick, but sometimes you may have to take a few trial exposures and zoom in on the LED screen to make some fine adjustments in manual focus. Always make sure to put your camera into manual focus after you get a sharp image so it doesn’t autofocus every time you take a photo, otherwise, you have to start the whole process over again. It’s also a good idea to mark or tape down your focus ring to make sure it won’t move, or if it does, that you can quickly find focus again. Now, with your camera on the tripod, rack your ISO up to the highest it will go and take a photo. It’s most likely going to look horribly noisy, but that’s ok. This is simply so you can get your composition the way you want it. Finally choose your Shutter speed, ISO, and Aperture. If you want stars as points of light, keep your shutter under 25 seconds. Any longer and the stars will start to trail.
The composition is one of the most important elements of Astrophotography. Someone could take the most beautiful, high res, no noise, photo of the Milky Way, and sure it would be a great photo no doubt, but if it has no context from the landscape or something else, it will always be lacking. Like I said in the above paragraph try and scout your location before dark. This will make it so much easier to get a nicely composed photo than fumbling around in the dark. I also recommend downloading the apps “SkyView Lite” and “Moon Phase”. Sky View is great because it allows you to search any star, galaxy, nebula, or planet, and will show you the trajectory of the celestial body so you can know where and when it will be visible. Moon Phase shows not only what phase the moon is in, but also how clear the night sky will be, and what time golden hour and blue hour will take place.
4. Try a Panorama!
Panoramas sometimes help bring that extra something to a photo that wouldn’t otherwise be there. They also help reduce noise and when stitched together, up the resolution of a photo. You want a fairly high resolution (15mb or more) if you plan on printing any of your Astrophotography work. Now, you may be wondering how to create one, and believe it or not, it’s fairly easy! First, decide whether you want a vertical or horizontal panorama. Then take the photos accordingly, and try to take evenly spaced pictures as you pan across or up. As always, use a tripod. After you have the photos, import them into Adobe Lightroom. You can then select the first photo, scroll to the last in your sequence, and Shift+click. This will select all your photos at once. Then, go to the Photo tab, mouse down to “Photo Merge”, and hover. An option should appear saying “Panorama”. Once in the Pano window, Lightroom will attempt to stitch your photos together into a seamless image. There will also be some options on the side. Play around with these different merge options to find one that looks best. Finally, click “Merge” at the bottom and your pano will be stitched into a new file keeping the old photos as individuals.
Thanks for reading and I hope some of these tips will help you up your Astrophotography game! If you have any questions or would like to check out my work, you can follow me on Instagram: @elyholt or visit my website at elyholtmeyerphoto.com.