Astrophotography Tips For Beginners

Five Tips For Astrophotography Beginners

Tips for beginners? I should note that when it comes to Astrophotography I am very much on a learning curve myself. So these tips come fresh from my recent experiences; both good and bad. Most of my photography is of Landscapes or Cityscapes but I am always impressed when I see good Astro shots, so this year I decided to try and get out to shoot the Milky Way as much as possible.

There is a lovely location for Landscape Photography on the southern tip of the Mornington Peninsula, near Melbourne. Just beyond the Cape Schanck Lighthouse you’ll find Pulpit Rock jutting up out of the sea - it’s incredible. It’s a great spot for sunrise and sunset but more importantly it is also an excellent Astrophotography location. Over the past six weeks I have made the trip down to Pulpit Rock a couple of times to try and capture a decent Milky Way shot. With sunset at this wintry time of year at around 17:15 and the Milky Way Core rising up over the southern horizon at about 19:00, it is the perfect time for an Astro shoot.

These tips draw on the experiences of my Astro trips down to Pulpit Rock. Hopefully you’ll find some of them useful!

Tip #1 - Find Yourself A Dark Sky Location

Seems fairly obvious but you’re going to want to shoot the stars and the Milky Way from a location that isn’t too badly polluted by city lights. Although technically possible to shoot the Milky Way above a city - just look at Steph Vella’s shot of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for example! - you’re going to get the best results by finding a true dark sky, away from all that light pollution. I use an app called Light Pollution App which is available for iOS and Android. This is intuitive enough to use and will highlight areas of high and low light pollution.

For my trip down to Pulpit Rock on the Mornington Peninsula, I knew the area was ‘blue’ which means there is very little - but not zero - light pollution. I chose this spot as Pulpit Rock is one of my favourite Landscape Photography locations and I wanted to combine the landscape as a foreground with the Milky Way core as it rose above the horizon.

Tip #2 - Be Prepared

As well as checking for a dark sky location you also need to plan for at least two other important sky-based objects:

The Moon

My first trip down to Pulpit Rock was made difficult (ruined) by the presence of a Full Moon. Right where the Milky Way Core would have been visible. A Full Moon wouldn’t have been an issue if it was still safely out of site (not risen yet) but I completely failed to check for this. A Full Moon where the Milky Way should have been meant that he sky was too bright and all starlight was dulled to the point where all my images were useless.

On my most recent trip I learnt my lesson and saw that the moon was only quarter full and was setting by the time I would need to be setting up my camera for the evening’s shoot. Perfect.

You can check Moon phases and timings on plenty of sites and apps but I find PhotoPills to be the most useful. It tells you phase, rise/set times and shows where the moon will rise/set on the horizon. If you’re a Landscape Photographer you probably already have this or something similar installed on your device.

Photopills is great for planning your astro or landscape photography adventure.

Photopills is great for planning your astro or landscape photography adventure.

Star Trails / Milky Way Core

AstroPhotography wouldn’t be complete without some star trails or a classic shot of the Milky Way core. Star Trails is outside the scope of this article for now, but I will add information on that to the site once i’ve got a few more examples to share.

The Milky Way Core is what I set out to shoot over Pulpit Rock. Finding it is really simple using the same app I mentioned for the Moon phases - PhotoPills. This will tell you, like the Moon, when the core is rising and where in the sky you’ll be able to see it.

There is a great augmented reality mode called ‘Night AR’ which let’s you get setup whilst it’s light and - using your phone’s camera - show you your composition with the night-sky objects overlaid on your screen. You can move time forward and back by sliding your finger over the screen. It basically lets you time shift to when the core is visible and see how this will look in your chosen composition. Very useful!

Tip#3 - Stay Safe

My chosen composition overlooking Pulpit Rock involved getting very close to the ocean. At Night. At high tide the spot where I stood would have been knee deep in water and it does get quite rough on the southern tip of the Mornington Peninsula. To ensure I stayed safe and dry I checked that the tide would be at it’s lowest point whilst I spent the 1-2 hours needed to setup and take my shots. I also made sure that I kept an eye on the waves to not get caught out by any rogue swell. I’m happy to say that neither I, or my camera, got wet during the trip.

The BOM will tell you the high low tide times but I use another app - Tides AU . It’s very simple and accurate.

Tip #4 - Astrophotography Camera Settings

There are no settings that will guarantee the perfect shot. Your camera, lens and the conditions will all affect the balance of these settings but as a starting point - for a sharp stars/Milky Way Core shot - you can go with:

ISO

1600

Aperture

2.8 (or the smallest aperture your lens will allow)

Shutter Speed

30 seconds.

A note on the 500 rule - There is a VERY general rule that to achieve sharp stars you should divide 500 by your chosen focal length e.g. my Batis 18mm lens would give me 500/18 = 28 seconds.

Now you have a starting point it’s time to take a shot. I then look for two outcomes and altered the settings accordingly:

  1. Sharp Stars? If NOT then you either haven’t focussed correctly OR they’re starting to trail in which case you need to decrease your shutter length (starting at 30 drop to 28, 26, 24 seconds etc..).

  2. Too dark? If your shutter speed is perfect based on 1. then you need to increase your ISO or open your Aperture further if possible.

Focussing

I wasn’t going to add this as a ‘setting’ but it is important to get your focus set correctly. It’s very simple to get right.

Set your camera to manual focus. Once you have your shot composed, using the screen/live view, focus on the brightest star in the sky and use your manual focus ring to make that star as small and sharp as possible. Simple as that.

Tip #5 - Bring The Right Gear

These might be obvious but there are a couple of things that may not be on your ‘Astro Gear List’:

  1. Camera - duh!

  2. Lens suitable for Astrophotography i.e. the widest Aperture you have (I use an f2.8 Batis 18mm)

  3. Tripod - Long exposures need a steady platform to shoot from.

  4. Shutter Release (wireless, wired, phone? It doesn’t matter as long as you can release the shutter without knocking your camera)

  5. Light pollution filter - definitely not mandatory but if you’re shooting in areas which are affected by light pollution then one of these will be handy. I use a NiSi Natural Night filter.

  6. Warm clothing. When I was standing around at Pulpit Rock for two hours it did start to get cold so make sure you’re smart and keep warm.

  7. Torch. Getting setup in the dark is no fun, nor is tripping over unsteady rocks and hurting yourself. Bring a torch with you but make sure you turn it off as you’re taking your shots!

That’s it, five simple tips to get you setup and on the way to taking Astro shots. Hopefully you took something useful away from this list. If you’re interested in how my shot turned out, look no further, the image below is the product of two trips (one failure) and lots of patience.

Pulpit Rock on the Mornington Peninsula is the perfect accompaniment to the Milky Way Core.