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Best Gear and Settings for Astrophotography

Belgian-Australian timelapse photographer Matt Vandeputte shares his tips for shooting the night sky, with advice on everything from the best camera gear and settings to use, to insider tips and tricks, this is everything you need to know to enhance your astrophotography tonight.

Right Place, Right Time

Like all forms of photography, the key to successful astrophotography is making sure you’re in the right place at the right time. Though it may be tempting to stay up late or get up early to shoot the sky from your garden, it’s important to remember that the clearest night skies can be found a couple of hours’ drive outside of major cities and towns. Australia is one of the best countries in the world for astrophotography, with vast expanses of open land and far less light pollution than many other countries.

Remember that, although you can photograph the stars at any time of year, the most impressive and captivating astro photos tend to feature the galactic core of our galaxy – the centre of the beautiful Milky Way that envelops us. In the Southern Hemisphere we can photograph the galactic core from May to September, with a peak in July.

It’s also important that we keep the cycle of the Moon in mind, as well as the time of year. A new moon will provide the clearest shooting conditions but a half or full moon can make your foregrounds more interesting. The key is to adapt to the light and shooting conditions.

Best Camera Gear for Astrophotography

Astrophotography is all about shooting in the dark so it’s important to have the right camera gear to capture as much light as possible. Here’s what you’ll need:

• Full Frame Camera

Sensors on full frame cameras have larger pixels that capture more light. Matt uses the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, but all of Canon’s Mirrorless and DSLR full frame cameras are well suited to astrophotography.

• Use Wide-Angle Lenses with Fast Apertures

Wide angle lenses allow you to capture more of the night sky. Prime lenses also typically have wider apertures than zoom lenses, such as f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.8 and f/2.8, which allow more light into your camera. This means you can stick with lower ISO numbers, which is important because the higher the ISO number you use, the more grain you will introduce to your images.

Matt demonstrates with the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L lens but any Canon lens with a wide aperture will work beautifully for astrophotography.

• Invest in a Sturdy Tripod

As astrophotography is all about shooting in the extremely low-light conditions with slow shutter speeds, it’s important to use a sturdy tripod to keep your camera stable. Tripods come at all sorts price points but it’s worth investing in a compact and lightweight tripod as you may have to hike a little way to find the best shoot locations.

• Use a Remote/Delayed Shutter Release

Using a remote or delayed shutter release mechanism will allow you to eliminate the camera shake that is often introduced when using your hand to release the shutter. Again, this will help you achieve sharp images even at slow shutter speeds.

• Use Hand Warmers

By mounting a hand warmer on your lens you will be able to keep it warm enough so that water vapour from the air doesn’t condensate on the end of it. Again, this will result in cleaner, sharp images, and will also keep your hands toasty in the process.

• A Red Head Torch

Not only will a red head torch help you see what you are doing in the darkness of night, but it will also help your eyes adjust to the lack of light and improve your night vision.

Best Camera Settings for Astrophotography

• Shoot in Manual Mode + RAW

Manual mode will allow you to control and set your camera settings. Similarly, RAW image files will give you much better creative control and flexibility when it comes to editing and colour grading your images in post.

• Turn Off Stabilisation and Noise Reduction

As you will be depending on your tripod to hold your camera steady, it’s important to turn off the OIS (optical image stabilisation) on your lens. If your camera body has IBIS (in-body image stabilisation) then you should also turn that off too. As noise reduction can be tweaked in post, it’s also a good idea to turn this off too while you shoot, as it could slow down your camera unnecessarily.

• Manual Focus with Live View

Ensure that your lens is switched to manual focus and open up your aperture as wide as it will go (such as f/1.8 or f/2.8). Switch on Live View and point your camera up towards the night sky on your tripod. Using manual focus, adjust the focus ring on your lens until the stars become sharp. Note that the smaller the stars look, the sharper you have them in focus. You can also zoom in on your LCD screen to help you gain focus.

• Set Your ISO and Shutter Speed

In Manual mode, select an ISO of 2000 and shutter speed of 15 seconds. This will be a starting point from which to start dialing in your settings.

• Take a Test Shot and Review Your Histogram

Using a remote shutter release or 2 second shutter delay to ensure you do not introduce camera shake. Take a test shot and review your histogram. Zoom in on your photo and study the stars. If you notice long and stripey star trails, your exposure time is too long and you need to increase your shutter speed. Keep adjusting until you are happy with your exposure and stick to these settings.

• Play Around with Light Painting

Once you’re happy with your composition and exposure, it‘s time to start playing around with your torch and/or phone to add light to your foreground. Remember that with really long exposure times, you can appear in your images – sometimes even in multiple locations! This is a fun process and can really give your astrophotography photos a personal touch.

There are few things as addictive and captivating as astrophotography. Have fun with it, and happy shooting!

Find out more about Matthew Vandeputte.