Night sky photography is one of the facets of photography that I really enjoy. The amazing dark skies in most of the Ozarks make it a very good location for shooting the night sky.
I recently posted a photo of the Orion Nebula on our social media pages. It was our most viewed photo on the Lost In The Ozarks social media platforms to date. There were also a lot of questions about my setup for getting the image in the comments. I used the same setup to capture the above image of the Pleiades Star Cluster. I decided to write an article to answer those questions and a few others that came up. I have added the photo of the Orion Nebula that I posted below.
Misconceptions About Telescopes And Night Sky Photography
First, you don’t necessarily need a telescope to shoot amazing photos of the night sky. You can do night sky photography with a camera and lens on a sturdy tripod and get great results. I do a lot of my night sky photography this way. However, those setups are mostly for shooting wide-field views of the sky because of the Earth’s rotation.
The rotation of the Earth is what makes the stars appear to move across the sky nightly. This is what causes stars to streak and trail if you use a long exposure to shoot the sky. The more you zoom in, the faster the stars appear to move, and the worse the star trails become. There isn’t enough room in this article to explain all the mechanics involved, but you will quickly see it in action as you begin to get out and do night sky photography.
To prevent the stars from streaking so you will get nice point stars you either have to use a fast enough shutter speed to capture the stars before they begin to show streaking, or you have to use an equatorial mount that moves your camera along with the stars to cancel out the motion. Once again, this article isn’t about how equatorial mounts work, but how they are used to capture the types of images you see above.
Another misconception about night sky photography and telescopes is that what you see in the images above is what you will see when observing through a telescope. This is most definitely not the case! Using magnifying eyepieces in your telescope will let you get a closer view of the moon, planets, and stars. The problem is that most deep-sky objects are too faint to make out much detail when you are observing. Below is one of the images straight out of the camera that was used to create the image of the Orion nebula above. It is one of the 46 images that were stacked to create the final image above.
I make this comparison so that you won’t have unreasonable expectations of what you will see through a good telescope. I’m not even going to touch on those $100 refractor telescopes you see sold in the big box stores. If you are even lucky enough to find an object in them, it will be gone out of your field of view so fast you won’t be able to see anything.
Now that we have established some expectations about what you will see versus the amazing photos you see online and in the news, let’s explore how I get these images.
My Night Sky Photography Setup
Above is the telescope setup I was using at my home in Florida. After moving to the Ozarks, I left out the laptop to make the rig easier to pack around and set up. Here is a link to the telescope and the guided Go-To mount that I am using-Orion SkyView Pro 8 GoTo Reflector Telescope. I don’t make anything for recommending this scope. It is simply the one I use to get these photos. Do your own research before you decide. You can also feel free to contact me with questions you may have.
How Do You Make The Photos Above?
Before we discuss how to take photos that look like the ones above, there are a few things you need to know about how the telescope and the camera work together.
The light from objects in the universe we are looking at with a telescope has traveled literally light years to reach your camera sensor. For instance, if you shoot a photograph of the Andromeda Galaxy, the photons captured by your camera sensor traveled through space for the last 2.1 million years to reach you. You are essentially seeing the galaxy as it existed 2.1 million years ago. Also, since it is so far away and so faint, you need to capture a lot of these photos so they will show up on your image. That is where a larger telescope makes a difference.
The telescope is just a light-gathering instrument. Point it at an object in the night sky and the photons of light travel to a mirror at the bottom of the telescope and are reflected off the main mirror and focused on a small angled mirror at the top of the barrel of the scope. The light is directed by that mirror to the eyepiece that you are looking through. This is a very basic explanation of how a reflector telescope works. Of course, there are other types of telescopes that are beyond the scope of this article.
In the case of shooting photos through the telescope, the camera is attached to the opening where the eyepiece would be located. This allows all the light collected to be focused on the sensor in your camera. This is what creates the image. When taking photos of stars that are bright, such as the Pleiades cluster, you don’t need many images to stack to make an acceptable photo showing the stars. But if you want to capture the faint blue nebula that surrounds the stars, you need many exposures to stack. This allows you to build up the image and gathers enough light over time to bring out those fine details.
The image of the Pleiades above was put together using the best 26 images exposed for 1 minute each. So instead of keeping the camera shutter open for 26 minutes, which would build up noise from the CCD sensor, much shorter exposures are stacked to keep the noise down.
Night Photography Tips
Night photography is one of the hardest forms of photography to master. You’ll need to turn everything you’ve learned about photography on its head and learn a new way of shooting. It takes a little intuition and the ability to think creatively to capture great night shots. Night photography is not anything like shooting in the daylight. There are a few things you need to make your night photos stand out. Hopefully, these night photography tips will get you interested in learning the techniques and get you out to capture some great night shots.
Safety should be your primary consideration when you set out on a night shoot. You’ll need a good flashlight, preferably with a red light setting or a red filter. The red light will help you conserve your night vision. But you don’t want to be stumbling around in the dark and tripping over things. A good flashlight can help you with light painting too. That’s one of the techniques I used to get the shot above. I’ll get to that in a moment. You also need to remember you’ll have your valuable camera equipment with you. If you plan to shoot in a dangerous area, plan to have one or two other people with you. You’ll want to scout out your shooting location in the daylight if possible so you can spot any hazards while you can see them.
It’s easy to forget that it can be cold at night in some areas. Batteries don’t last as long in the cold. Make sure you have spare batteries and that they are fully charged. A jacket and gloves are also good to have in case the temperature gets lower than you anticipated. You may also want to consider carrying a few disposable hand warmers and a few rubber bands. Moisture in the air can cause your camera lens to fog over at night. You can activate one or two of the hand warmers and use a rubber band to secure them to the lens to warm it. A thermos of hot beverage can help you brave the chill and stay out a little longer to get your shot as well.
You are going to need a DSLR to get good night shots. Remember, night exposures can be as long as 30 seconds or even longer. Most point-and-shoot cameras don’t have a setting for long exposures. An intervalometer is another key piece of equipment you need. This little gem will allow you to set the exposure time and will also take repeated exposures of the same duration for a few frames or as long as your camera battery lasts. It will help if you have a lens with an infinity exposure mark on it too. This mark is where everything within the frame is in focus. This mark is a lifesaver if you are taking exposures of the night sky. It is really hard to get a good focus using a star at night. Use the infinity setting and your shots will most likely be in focus. Take a few test shots and adjust as necessary.
An intervalometer also can function as a cable release. You don’t want to have to press your shutter because that can introduce vibration, which can ruin your shot. Finally, a stable tripod is essential. You’ll want one that is sturdy so that a sudden breeze doesn’t ruin your shot.
As noted earlier, long exposures are essential for night photography. To get the light streaks from cars on a freeway takes a 20-30 second exposure. Photos of the night sky require a long exposure as well. But you’ll be amazed at the number of stars you’ll capture with a long exposure of the sky compared to how many you can see with only your naked eye. This is because the light builds up on your sensor while the shutter is open. There are many sources online that explain exactly how this happens.
Another fun thing to do when shooting at night is called light painting. This is when you use a flash or a flashlight to paint light onto an object while your shutter is open. You can use your light to paint a tree or a building. The possibilities are endless. You can even move through the frame painting different objects and as long as you don’t illuminate yourself and you keep moving, you’ll never reflect enough light for you to register on your camera’s sensor. In addition to a flash or flashlight, you can do light painting with the colored chem lights used for emergencies. The limit really is only your imagination.
What Should I Do If I Want To Take Up Night Sky Photography?
Before you go out and buy a bunch of new equipment, you should read a lot of the resources online to decide what you are wanting to accomplish. If you already have a camera such as a DSLR and a few lenses, you really have all you need to get started learning about night sky photography. Buy an intervalometer so you can take longer exposures and learn how to use the bulb mode on your camera.
Once you understand how and why you need to take long exposures to capture the objects in the night sky, you will be better able to make a decision on which telescope to buy and you won’t make an expensive mistake. Whatever scope you decide to buy, if you want to take astrophotos, make sure it is on a sturdy mount. If you want to image deep sky objects such as galaxies and nebulas, you need an equatorial mount. A nice addition is to get a Go-To mount that will guide the scope to the object in the sky you want to look at. Here is the one I currently use: Sky-Watcher EQM-35 – Fully Computerized GoTo German Equatorial Telescope Mount – Belt-driven, Astrophotography ready, Computerized Hand Controller with 42,900+ Celestial Object Database.
This is not meant to be an all-encompassing article on night sky photography. Once you begin this journey, there will always be something new to learn and new techniques to try. We didn’t even touch on processing the final images, as that is a full article in itself. However, a quick search will bring you to many videos and articles you can access to see what that involves. I do hope this article helps to answer some of the questions. If you have further questions or comments feel free to contact us.