7 Tips for Getting Started in Shooting Astrophotography

Planning your first astrophotography shoot? Get insight and advice from seven pro photographers and learn how they capture stunning images of deep space.

Almost twenty-five years ago, the Hubble Space Space Telescope captured a picture that changed the course of history. One of the most iconic photographs of all time—of any genre—The Pillars of Creation pictured the Eagle Nebula, or M16. The image was a scientific marvel, but beyond that, it reminded humankind of the vastness of the universe and the preciousness of our existence.

All these years later, the magic of M16 hasn’t faded one bit. In 2015, Hubble captured more images of the Eagle Nebula—each one sharper and wider than the original. These new photos showed newborn stars hiding within the well-known pillars, and as material heated up and evaporated, they also revealed a stunning blue haze—proving just how changeable and dynamic these giant space clouds can be.

Although Hubble has been in orbit for nearly three decades now, we’ve just begun to scratch the surface. All over the globe, astrophotographers spend sleepless nights tracking the stars across the sky—all for a chance to catch a glimpse of the universe beyond our reach.

We spoke with seven astrophotographers to get their best tips for getting started. While some of them prefer landscapes and Milky Way shots, others found their passion in deep-sky objects. Regardless of your interests and level of expertise, there’s something in here for everyone.

1. “​The most important aspect is patience.”

Pawel Radomski​

7 Tips for Getting Started in Shooting Astrophotography — PatiencePatience Pays Off

Image by ​Pawel Radomski​. ​Camera: Monochromatic camera ZWO ASI 1600MM-C + narrowband filters (Ha, OIII, SII) (Gain 139). Telescope: SkyWatcher ED80 – 510mm. Mount: SkyWatcher AZ-EQ6. Times: Summary 40h 15min (single exposition time: 5min, no. of exposures: 483).

What’s the story behind this photo?​

The Rosette Nebula has been one of my “must-have” objects since the beginning of my fascination with astrophotography. Where I live (in Poland), it’s only available during a small number of clear nights in winter. I had to wait for years until the weather conditions allowed me to capture it.

I live in a big city, and the light pollution here made astrophotography almost impossible until I purchased my narrowband filters, which allow me to work in the city. The weather during this particular winter was mind, so I was able to collect enough material to make this photo. I spent three days processing it, and I used the HST color palette, which is used to process astrophotography from the Hubble Space Telescope.

7 Tips for Getting Started in Shooting Astrophotography — Long Nights and Long HoursAnticipate Long Nights and Long Hours

Image by ​Pawel Radomski

Pro Tip

​The most important aspect is patience. Astrophotographers must be able to spend many long nights collecting material and then many hours processing those images—all without giving up. If you want to try your hand at astrophotography, you will also have to travel to a place that is very dark—without light pollution from cities and villages—and these places are unfortunately becoming rarer and rarer.

The darker the sky, the better, so it’s best to choose a moonless night, and, of course, there should be no clouds, and the wind shouldn’t be too strong. The best weather conditions tend to occur in winter, but cold weather means you’ll have to pay extra attention to your equipment, as your batteries will run out faster.

I would suggest pointing your camera not at random areas of the sky, but toward an interesting astronomical object. For example, some good goals for the northern hemisphere in autumn would the Great Andromeda Galaxy – Messier 31, or the Triangle Galaxy – Messier 33.

In winter, I’d aim for the Orion constellation and the Great Orion Nebula – Messier 42. Spring is the best time for galaxies—the large clusters in the Virgo and Coma Berenices constellations. In summer, you can admire the richness of areas around the center of our galaxy and a beautiful, almost vertical Milky Way.

I recommend getting Stellarium, a planetarium software that will help you find objects and plan your photo sessions. It’s available for free. Learn as much as you can about the sky—the stars are signposts to the objects that are hidden in the cosmos. The more you study the sky, astronomy, and physics, the better your photos will be.

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2. “A stunning foreground and clear dark sky are a great combination.”

Christianto Soning

7 Tips for Getting Started in Shooting Astrophotography — Incorporate Stunning ForegroundsUse Foregrounds to Build a Composition

Image by ​Christianto Soning​. Gear: ​Nikon D600​ camera, ​Nikkor 14-24mm​ lens. Settings: Focal length ​20mm​; exposure ​25​ sec; f2.8; ISO ​3200​.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

This photo was taken during the blue hour somewhere near the Tip of Borneo, Sabah, Malaysia. The timing had to be just right to capture this moment. What made the scene even more interesting was the stillness of the early morning sea, reflecting the Milky Way.

The fishing hut in the middle of the sea tells the story of the fishing community there. It reflects the culture and lifestyle of this place, and it also highlights its untouched natural beauty—far from the hustle and bustle of crowds of people. It was so pristine and clear of light and other environmental pollution that the Milky Way was visible to the naked eye.

Christianto SoningChristianto Soning

mosaic__mobile-caption">Pictured: [1] Christianto Soning [2] Christianto Soning

Pro Tip

Physical fitness and a degree of fearlessness are important for any astrophotographer because the best locations for photographing the Milky Way are usually secluded and require lots of walking in the dark.

In addition to the location being dark (no light pollution), it’s also a big bonus for me if it offers an awesome natural environment. A stunning foreground and clear dark sky are a great combination. You’ll need a sturdy tripod as well as a shutter release to avoid camera shake. Shooting at night in low temperatures can also result in foggy glass, so bring a warm cloth with you as well.

Another important thing that you cannot forget is safety. I normally head out with friends or hire a local guide. Being alone in remote places at night is not a good idea. I always bring a torch light, a power bank, a hunting knife, drinking water, spare clothes, and a little food. When you spend an hour or more hiking, it’s easy to get hungry and thirsty.

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3. “The longer the total exposure time, the easier it is to achieve detailed, low-noise, artifact-free, high-contrast images.”

Thomas Grohmann / ​Westend61

7 Tips for Getting Started in Shooting Astrophotography — Long Exposure TimesLong Exposure Times Pay Off

Image by ​Thomas Grohmann / ​Westend61​. Gear: ​Canon EOS 7Da​ camera, ​EF200mm f/2.8L IS II USM​ lens. Settings: stack of 10x300seconds; f3.2; ISO ​800​.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

My aim is to draw people’s attention to the beauty of our planet—and beyond. There is hardly a region in the sky more colorful than the nebulae around the star Antares. This picture was taken in Namibia.

The astro-modified camera and the 200mm lens were mounted on a larger telescope, with which deep sky images of the southern hemisphere were taken. My hope is that this photograph can provide an incentive to save our environment (this includes decreasing light pollution) and shape our future for the better.

7 Tips for Getting Started in Shooting Astrophotography — Improve Signal-to-Noise RatioImprove Signal-to-Noise Ratio

Image by ​Thomas Grohmann / ​Westend61

Pro Tip

The best conditions for astrophotography are dark skies with little or no light pollution, but you can still get successful astrophotographs in less-than-ideal locations—if some rules are observed. In general, you should try to improve the signal-to-noise ratio (i.e. increase the object signal and reduce the noise).

The best way to achieve this is to work with lenses or telescopes with a high f-number ratio, take many shorter exposed single shots, and combine (stack) these shots. The longer the total exposure time, the easier it is to achieve detailed, low-noise, artifact-free, high-contrast images.

In the case of longer exposures or longer focal lengths, the stars should still remain as round points, despite the earth’s rotation. For this reason, I recommend mounting the camera on a so-called “star tracker” or an astronomical mount. These days, there are also cameras that can compensate for the Earth’s rotation to a certain extent through the mobility of their sensor.

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4. “I always drive away from lights as much as I can and also get as high as I can.”

Ariana Gillrie

7 Tips for Getting Started in Shooting Astrophotography — Leave Light Pollution BehindLeave Light Pollution Behind

Image by ​Ariana Gillrie​. Gear: ​5D Mark IV​ camera, ​Sigma 35mm art series​ lens. Settings: Exposure 10 sec; f1.4; ISO 4000.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I was actually nine months pregnant with my second child in two years. I heard about the meteor shower and looked up when the ideal nights for viewing would be, organized babysitting for my eldest after she fell asleep, and then drove up to one of my favorite lookouts with my fiancée to shoot the stars!

I had been living in Vancouver, Canada for a while, and it has a lot of light pollution, so I really missed seeing the stars, and as soon as I heard about this meteor shower, nine months pregnant or not, I was heading out to shoot it.

We drove about thirty to forty minutes away from the closest town’s lights, sat, and waited for the shower to begin. I actually missed seeing a giant meteor because my head was buried behind the camera, and all I saw was a huge flash in the sky, so I put the camera away after that and just enjoyed the show.

7 Tips for Getting Started in Shooting Astrophotography — Start with the Milky WayStart with the Milky Way

Image by ​Ariana Gillrie

Pro Tip

An easy way to get into astrophotography is to shoot the Milky Way—it’s bright, interesting, and can be framed in different ways to make it a little different from other shots you may have seen before. Shoot it streaming from corner to corner or during an interesting astrological event.

I always drive away from lights as much as I can and also get as high as I can. You’d be surprised when shooting stars how much a little light from a building or a house can leak orange light into your shot and make it less clear.

I’ve got a tripod that I use now, but when I started, I would just get my settings right, and then set my camera on a piece of clothing on a flat surface and play around, or use bike lights to do some light drawing.

Experimenting is the best way to learn—and even better if you have a willing participant who will keep you awake. It’s always easiest to shoot the night sky clearly when there is no moon present, so keep an eye out for those clear nights.

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5. “You need to find a night with clear skies, but you also have to take the moon phase into account.”

Jacinto Marabel Romo

7 Tips for Getting Started in Shooting Astrophotography — Track the MoonTake the Moon into Account

Image by ​Jacinto Marabel Romo​. Gear: ​Nikon d500​ camera, ​Sigma art 14mm f 1.8​ lens. Settings: Exposure 5 sec; f1.8; ISO ​2000​ [I took 98 photos I stacked them in the post-processing].

What’s the story behind this photo?

Last August, I went to Switzerland on vacation with my family. We spent a few days in Zermatt, exploring the beautiful landscapes of the area. On one of those nights, after having dinner, we noticed that the clouds—which are common in the area—had cleared.

I decided to go out to the terrace of the hotel room. I was happy to see that the terrace was north-oriented and I was able to see Polaris. I decided to create a circumpolar star trails pattern photo. I put the camera on the tripod and framed the scene.

When shooting star trails, I like to capture long star trails by shooting multiple exposures and stacking them in post-processing. Total exposure time, in this case, was one hour.

7 Tips for Getting Started in Shooting Astrophotography — Take Multiple ExposuresCapture Multiple Exposures

Image by ​Jacinto Marabel Romo

Pro Tip

Timing is so important. You need to find a night with clear skies, but you also have to take the moon phase into account. If you are interested in capturing the Milky Way, you should choose a date when the Milky Way Core is visible.

On top of that, you should find locations with low light pollution. Depending on where you live, that can be a challenge. Regarding your gear, cameras with good noise performance when cranking up the ISO above 3200 are mandatory if you want to get a good-quality photograph.

Finally, a powerful foreground can convert a good astrophoto in an awesome one. For instance, a beautiful tree or an ancient construction can be used to create really interesting foregrounds within your composition.

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6. “Go to the countryside and look for places with minimal light pollution away from the city.”

Vastram

7 Tips for Getting Started in Shooting Astrophotography — Leave the City BehindLeave the City Behind

Image by ​Vastram​. Gear: ​Sony a6300​ camera, ​Sigma 16mm F1.4​ lens. Settings: Exposure 30 sec; f1.4; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This photo was taken in Azerbaijan, where there are a lot of mud volcanoes like this one. A friend and I chose a moonless night and went to photograph the Milky Way. This spot is 100 kilometers from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The weather was magnificent: the sky was clear, cloudless, and completely calm.

7 Tips for Getting Started in Shooting Astrophotography — Tripods are KeyTripods are Key

Image by ​Vastram

Pro Tip

Go to the countryside and look for places with minimal light pollution away from the city. Take along the highest-aperture optics that you have, and, of course, a tripod and a flashlight. I also recommend bringing some warm tea with delicious cookies, as you’ll get hungry out there in nature.

Look for a place with a foreground that can be slightly highlighted with a flashlight. You can even include a person in the shot. For shooting the starry sky and the Milky Way, choose moonless nights.

Focus on the brightest star and switch the camera to “manual focus” mode. Don’t forget about the rotation of the earth, as the stars will be blurry if you use a very long shutter speed. I adhere to this rule: in general, 600 divided by the focal length of your lens will be the longest shutter speed at which you can get unblurred stars.

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7. “I recommend taking a series of test shots in advance of the astronomical event you want to photograph.”

Yuriy Kulik

7 Tips for Getting Started in Shooting Astrophotography — Take Test ShotsTake Test Shots

Image by ​Yuriy Kulik​. ​Gear: Canon 6D camera, Canon EF 17-40/4L lens, modified iOptron SmartStar mount. Settings: Sky: about 600 shots, about 30-40 selected images with falling stars. Focal length 17mm; exposure 30 sec; f4; ISO 6400. Earth: Focal length 17mm; exposure 30 sec; f5,6; ISO 800.

What’s the story behind this photo?

One of the most powerful experiences a person can have is spending a summer night under the roof of the starry sky. In the case of this photo, I spent the night drinking wine among the sand dunes, watching the sunset, and wandering through the wastelands at night without lighting a lantern. There was no moon in the sky and only the shine of the Milky Way. I listened to the nighthawks meow and the owls sing. August nights like this one are warm, dry, and clear.

Yuriy Kulik Yuriy Kulik

Pictured: [1] Yuriy Kulik [2] Yuriy Kulik

Pro Tip

​In order to learn how to shoot well at night, you have to know your equipment. I recommend taking a series of test shots in advance of the astronomical event you want to photograph. Spend some time studying them on the computer to determine what combinations of aperture, ISO, and exposure work best for you and your gear. Shoot in RAW (of course) and experiment—there’s no “readymade” recipe for astrophotography.

In addition to your cameras and lenses, will need a tripod for single shots and a mount to rotate the camera to follow the sky. Remember that you might have to carry everything yourself because it’s not always possible to drive to these remote locations.

Top Image by ​Christianto Soning.

Want more on shooting astrophotography? Check these out.

7 Astrophotographers on Making Out-of-This-World ImagesVideo Tutorial: How to Master the Art of Night PhotographyTop Photographers Share Tips on Shooting Outdoors at Night

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