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Feature Image by: Graeme Campbell | @eyeofgraeme

The Basics of shooting Astrophotography with landscape photographer Graeme Campbell

Adding stars to your landscapes can take your photos to a new level by adding another element of interest into the frame. Taking photos of the night sky requires planning to achieve the results you set out to achieve. By understanding the basics of Astrophotography, you will be more likely to capture images that you are happy to share with your family and friends.


Finding the Right Gear for Astrophotography

When capturing the night sky, it is ideal to use a full-frame camera. This is because full-frame sensors have larger pixels than APSC or micro 4/3 sensors which results in more light being captured by the camera. This will improve the quality of your images as they will have more detail and less noise than if you were to use a smaller sensor. Canon offers some great full-frame cameras for astrophotography including the EOS-1D X Mark III, EOS R5, EOS R6, EOS R, EOS 5D Mark IV, and EOS 6D Mark II. However, it is not necessary to use a full-frame camera to capture the night sky, all of Canon’s DSLR and Mirrorless cameras can capture great Astro-photos.

Wide-angle lenses allow the camera to capture a wider field of view and include more of the night sky in your photo. Having a lens with a fast aperture will allow more light to reach the sensor of your camera. This is important as it gives you the ability to lower your ISO and decrease the amount of noise present in your photo. Canon has a large range of lenses that are suitable for astrophotography with some of the best lenses being the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM, RF 15-35mm F2.8 L IS USM, EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM, and the EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM. These lenses all let in a lot of light at a wide angle to provide spectacular images of the night sky. If you don’t have any of these lenses you can absolutely make do and you can still come away with amazing results!

Make sure you own a sturdy tripod. This might be a bit expensive initially, but it is worth the investment because to get photos of the night sky you need to keep your camera as still as possible. As the saying goes, buy nice or buy twice and this couldn’t be truer when it comes to tripods. If you buy the cheapest tripod you can find, it likely won’t hold your camera completely still and you will end up with blurry photos.


Planning your Shoot

Multiple factors go into capturing the Night Sky. One of those is being in the right place at the right time. Fortunately, with today’s abundance of technology, this has never been easier. In New Zealand, the galactic core of the Milky Way is only visible from February to October, with June and July being the best when the core is at its brightest. You will also want to make sure that the moon isn’t visible as this could wash out the Milky Way in your photos. To be able to see the stars you must have dark and clear skies. To maximize the clarity of the stars in your photo you are going to want to get as far away from towns and cities as possible. You can find a map of light pollution at Home . This site shows you where the best places to find dark skies are. If you want to see the stars you need clear skies. A website to help you find areas near you that will be clear at night is Windy as forecasted . This website shows you a cloud map that updates every three hours, helping you find clear skies no matter what time of night you plan to shoot. An app that will help you find where the Milky Way will be located in the sky is Photopills. This app has plenty of helpful tools for photographers but notably for photographing the night sky, a Night AR feature. This feature works by showing an overlay of the milky way over a live feed from your phone’s camera. This is incredibly useful as it can allow you to visualize where the milky way will sit in your composition.


Capturing the Night Sky


Shutter Speed:

The general rule for the shutter speed when it comes to astrophotography is to go with anything between 10 and 30 seconds depending on your focal length. The longer the shutter speed you use, the lower the ISO you can use but using a shutter speed too long can result in blurry stars due to the Earth's rotation. To work out what shutter speed, you can use without getting blurry stars, use the 500 rule. The 500 rule works by dividing 500 by your focal length (15mm in my case), so 500/15 = 33.33. This means when using a 15mm lens on a full-frame camera, you can use a shutter speed of 33 seconds before getting blurry stars. If you are using an APSC sensor camera, you need to multiply the focal length of your lens by 1.6. This means that using a 15mm lens on an APSC camera will be like using a 24mm lens on a full frame. As a result, you would need to divide 500 by 24, giving you a 20.8-second maximum exposure before you start to get blurry stars.

Night sky astro photography
Photo credit: Graeme Campbell | @eyeofgraeme

Aperture

For aperture, pretty much set it as wide as possible to let in the most light you can. This will allow you to use a lower ISO and a faster shutter speed. You can stop down your aperture a little to improve sharpness and reduce vignetting but this is not necessary.


ISO:

When it comes to what ISO you should use, it is completely dependent on your location. For locations close to cities or towns you can get away with around 2000 ISO but for darker locations like Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, you will get the best results with an ISO between 5000 and 12,000. Generally, the higher ISO you use, the grainier your image will be, however sometimes you will achieve more desirable results with a higher ISO as it will reveal more detail in your image. Overall, experiment with ISOs ranging from 2000 to 12,000 and see what gives you the best results.


Focusing

Focus in darkness can be very difficult. Fortunately, modern cameras have a feature called live-view. This shows what the camera sees on the back screen. This is helpful when shooting the night sky as it allows you to manually focus on the stars. This can be done by pointing your camera towards the brightest star you can find and placing it in the centre of your screen. Zoom into the star on the back screen and adjust your focus until the star is as small as you can get it. An alternative method to focusing is to autofocus on a very distant object, like a mountain, during the day and to down your focus ring using painter’s tape. This will prevent you from bumping your focus ring and losing focus.


2-second timer

To prevent your camera from shaking and blurring your exposure you can use a remote shutter release. If you don’t have one of these you can use a 2-second timer. By doing this, your hands won’t shake the camera while you try to take a photo.

Astro photography New Zealand guide
Photo credit: Graeme Campbell | @eyeofgraeme

Final Takeaways

The most important step to improving your Astrophotography is to get out there and practice. Nothing comes easy and the more you put in, the more you get out. The more that you try new things in photography, the more you test and improve your skills. Finally, have fun with your photography.

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