THE JOY OF ASTRO PHOTOGRAPHY.
By the above-mentioned title one might think that this is going to be a very technical photography blog post. That involves photography, astrophysics, astronomy, and so on. In actuality it’s not.
I am going to attempt to explain a very unique aspect/hobby of photography, and one that I personally enjoy and consider my all time favorite. And that is “Astrophotography.”
Astrophotography is a popular hobby among photographers and amateur astronomers. Images of the night sky that can be obtained, with the most basic film and digital cameras. Astrophotography is a specialized type of photography that entails recording images of astronomical objects (starts or the moon for example) and large areas of the night sky. Astrophotography is a large sub-culture (for lack of a better term) in amateur astronomy where it is usually used to record aesthetically pleasing images, rather than for scientific research.
Since astrophotography is largely for aesthetically pleasing images, and not for scientific research, the reader of this blog post. (That is you…) no longer has to worry about astrophysics or learning how to launch rockets into orbit. That is simply not required to know.
But you will need to know a little about photography and some basic astronomy. Let’s start with the photography aspect first.
My two lenses of choice are Canon EF-S 55-250mm F/4-5.6 IS II and Sigma 70-300mm F/4-5.6 – Both lenses are great for astrophotography. Granted there are more powerful lenses on the market that one can buy. But if you don’t have two thousand dollars or more to buy a high power zoom or telephoto zoom lens. (Mind you we are only talking the cost of the lens, not the camera body.) Then no need to worry for there are other lenses such as the ones that I use and others on the market that are totally capable of doing astrophotography. Another item one must have is a lens hood. I will explain why later in this post.
My Camera is a Canon EOS 600D also known as an EOS Rebel T3i. Mind you some camera manufacturers modified their products to be used as an astrophotography camera such as Canon EOS 60Da based on Canon EOS 60D with a modified infrared filter and a low-noise sensor with heightened hydrogen-alpha sensitivity for improved capture of red hydrogen emission nebulae. In layman’s terms being able to create aesthetically pleasing images with more color and detail.
If you had not noticed, I am a Canon user, for other manufacturers such as Nikon you can check at your local retailer or with the manufacturer to see if they as well have products that can be used as an astrophotography camera as well.
Now that we got an idea of the camera equipment that I use. The next important thing to discuss is “location.”
Location is a factor, not only the location of starts in the night sky on any given night. But the location of where you are at is important as well. First thing to know is the location of starts in your area. You will need a start chart or star/sky map as they are sometimes called.
Sky Map’s are ready-to-use and will help you to:
- Identify planets, stars and major constellations
- Find sparkling star clusters, wispy nebulae & distant galaxies
- Locate and follow bright comets across the sky
- Learn about the night sky and Astronomy
It’s a 2-page monthly guide to the night sky suitable for astronomy and astrophotography. You can find and download a sky map for free at. http://www.skymaps.com/downloads.html
I highly recommend them. The second factor to location is the area that you are in. People usually think of astronomy or astrophotography as being out in the Mid-West in some farmland in the middle of the United States. Nothing else out there but foxes, cows, and wild dogs, maybe even Area 51 or a USAF missile silo. That is a false assumption if you think one has to be in such an area. Granted one would have a clear view of the night sky in such a location. But not everyone lives in such an area.
Myself I live in New York State, in New York City. No farmland here… just extremely tall buildings. So I don’t have that luxury of open space here, but that is actually not an issue for me. With that said you must get the appropriate sky map for your location.
For myself I use the Northern Hemisphere map that’s drawn for latitude 40° North (suitable for North America, Europe, China, Japan…)
If you live in Central America, Central Africa, Indonesia, Singapore, use the Equatorial Edition Drawn for latitude 0°.
And for Australia, Southern Africa, South America, use the Southern Hemisphere Edition Drawn for latitude 35° South.
Don’t worry about the latitude if you’re a first time user. Just find the location of where you are. (I.e. North America, Europe, China, Japan) Once you find your location. Just download the appropriate map.
Make sure you use the correct map. If you are in for example North America and you download and use a South American map. All the starts will be listed and viewed wrong and not in the correct place in the sky, or not even showing in the night sky.
The next factor to address is weather. This is obvious of course. Clear skies are a must have, however there are times when a few clouds in the night sky can make a photo of the full moon much more interesting.
And as well one must take into consideration the evening temperature. Try to avoid extremely cold nights. Cold temperature may affect the operation of your camera, and as well dress appropriately. Plan ahead. Check the lows in your local forecast. You venture out in forty degree evening temperature, but as the night goes on. It drops down to thirty-two degrees. You then discover that you are not dressed for colder temperatures. Shaking and shivering makes it much more harder to take photos.
The final point about the weather I cannot stress enough. Avoid thunderstorms! DO NOT ATTEMPT TO TAKE ANY PHOTOS IF YOU SET YOUR CAMERA ON A TRIPOD FOR ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY BEFORE A THUNDER STORM! Think about it… Charged sky, light rain, and a camera tripod that now has a high chance of becoming a lightning rod. Do the math people. Matter of fact… I recommend aborting any attempt at taking photos in an open field in extremely bad weather such as lightning.
The final thing that I want to mention and briefly discussed previously, is the use of a lens hood. In photography, a lens hood or lens shade is a device used on the end of a lens to block the sun or other light source in order to prevent glare and lens flare. Lens flare is the light scattered in lens systems that often shows up on the final image/photo taken. It usually shows up without warning.
Now I know that you are thinking. “But why would I need a lens hood if I’m taking photos at night?” The reason being is if you live in a large city like myself. Location New York City then you will need a lens hood to block out any stray light from light posts or tall buildings in order to get the best photo. Trust me… They (lens hoods) do come in handy for astrophotography sessions.
One more final item that I should mention, you will need a little time and patience to get the photo that you want. In all honesty it’s worth every moment of the process. Below are two examples that I had taken some time back. One is of the moon on November 28, 2012, taken at 7:34 pm. And the other is a photo of the constellation Virgo. The blue-white star with the photo is Spica. Taken on January 7, 2013 At 2:30 am. Click on any of the two images below to see a full view. For myself astrophotography is worth the effort for moments like the ones below.