If you’re getting into astrophotography, it can be a little confusing. Even if you’re an accomplished photographer, there’s a difference between photographing a wedding and photographing space. As all photographers know, having the right settings on your camera is imperative to how clear and focussed your resulting picture is going to be. So if you’re taking pictures of the stars, you need to have the right astrophotography settings.
Much of this is stuff that you can determine yourself, but you’re going to have to remember the number one rule of astrophotography – you need a clear sky! So if you’re in a polluted city center, then the chances are that you’re going to struggle with light pollution anyway. You can always check online to find out how light polluted your city is.
But anyway, if you’ve got a clear sky and a good DSLR camera, then you should be good to go for taking astronomy pictures. Of course, for more advanced stuff you’ll need to find a telescope for astrophotography too. But, this isn’t necessary for
If you’re starting your astrophotography journey, then it’s necessary to know that you’re going to have to adjust these features depending on what exactly it is that you’re taking photography of. For example, if you’re talking pictures of the vast Milkway, you’ll want to use maximum aperture, high ISO and a lengthy shutter speed. If that doesn’t mean anything to you don’t worry – I’ll go through everything with you as we progress.
Generally when I’m taking pictures of the night sky, these are the things that I keep in mind as my astrophotography settings.
- Manual Exposure Mode is a necessity.
- Maintain a balanced Exposure Triangle.
- Wide aperture settings (f/1.2-4.0 range)
- 15-30 second exposure length based on focal length
- ISO settings between 800-3200
- Focal length of 16mm-35mm depending on camera
- Use RAW Image
Generally, these are some of the astrophotography settings that you’re going to want to start out with. Of course, if you’re starting with a f/1.2 aperture, then you might want to change it for other objects in the sky – for example, a f/4.0 would be better for comets than for stars.
These aren’t hard rules for your astro settings, and you’re going to have to adjust your settings as you see fit. Don’t worry if this is a little overwhelming at first – you’ll soon get used to it. Let’s have a bit of a deeper look at each of the individual settings you’ll need to take into account if you”re interested in using your camera for astrophotography.
Manual Exposure Mode
There’s nothing wrong with using automatic mode for the majority of things – many photographers will use auto mode for publications and magazines. But for astrophotography, you’ll have to set your camera to manual mode.
For nighttime photography, you’re going to have to use manual mode with your camera. This is because it allows you to adjust the settings to your preferences and give you complete creative control over your photos. So, first step is to ensure that you’ve got your camera set to manual mode.
The Exposure Triangle
In photography, we refer to one of the most important elements of getting a good photo as the ‘exposure triangle’. This refers to three things; aperture, shutter speed and ISO. These three settings determine the exposure of the photograph, and they must be balanced together to get the optimal results.
By balancing these three settings together perfectly, you can ensure that you’re going to get a decent photograph. Generally, we want a shallow depth of field (so a maximum aperture, lower f/ numbers), a mid range shutter speed of 15-30 seconds (assuming we’re using a 14-35mm focal length) and a medium to high ISO level of between 800-3200. This isn’t set in stone however, and it’s important that you understand how each of these settings works.
When you’re considering your astrophotography settings, the most important place to start is with your aperture. To put it simply, the aperture is the amount of light that’s allowed through the lens opening, dictated by the size of a hole – aka the aperture. Here’s an image which shows you the difference in the hole size providing on which different aperture you’re using.
When you’re taking pictures of the stars, you’re going to want to have your aperture wide open. This will allow more light into the lens, which is better for dark and low light images. Generally, you want you aperture set to between f/1.2 and f/4.0, which is sometimes referred to as a fast aperture. In this case, you’ll usually keep your aperture at around f/1.2 to f/1.4. So we want our aperture at a maximum (maximum = wide = fast; I know, it can get a little confusing) to allow light into the lens to get a good photograph.
Shutter speed is essential for getting a high quality image, and most people will tell you to follow the 500 rule. This is essentially just dividing 500 by the focal length, which will result in the maximum amount of time you can set your shutter speed to before you’re going to see blurry stars and stars with trails, which easily get mistaken for comets.
For example your focal length is 24mm, you’ll divide 500 by 24 which equals 20.83, which we can round down to twenty seconds. So for a 24mm focal length, 20 seconds is a good shutter speed. In my opinion it’s always better to round down than round up, as you don’t want to extend the shutter speed past the cameras capabilities.
As well as aperture and shutter speed, the final part of the exposure trifecta – which is commonly referred to as the exposure triangle – is ISO, which stands for International Organisation of Standards. To put it simply, the ISO setting is the sensitivity of the sensor in the camera.
Depending on what it is you’re trying to photography, you’re going to need different ISO settings. We generally want higher ISO so we have the ability to capture more light. You’ll ideally want settings of anywhere between 800-3200 for astrophotography. If you go any higher than that, then you’re likely to get grainy picture. If you go lower than that, then you’re not going to get a bright enough image.
Other Astrophotography Settings to Consider
It’s not all about the exposure triangle, and there are other things that you’ll want to consider if you’re trying to get a good photograph.
The focal length will determine how close, or ‘zoomed in’, the results photographs will be. So if you have a higher mm lens, then you’re going to get a more zoomed in view. But if you have a lower mm lens, then you’re going to get a wider view. For astrophotography, you’re going to want to use a lower focal range lens to give us a wider view.
The rule of thumb is that 35mm and below is considered a wide angle lens, which is what we’re looking for. Anything between 14mm-35mm is okay, as it also depends on whether you’re using an APS-C or a full frame camera. For me, the sweet spot is a 24mm lens at f/2.8 aperture, which gives me some amazing views of the Milkyway.
RAW Image Format
When you’re taking photographs with your camera, you’re usually going to want to take them in RAW image format. Essentially, we want to do this because RAW images are not compressed and are as they as taken, whereas if you have it set to another mode – commonly JPEG – you’re not going to get the uncompressed image.
To get the best levels of quality when taking pictures and optimal levels of brightness, you’re going to want to use RAW image format for your pictures.
This also address the issue of white balance. Essentially, white balance helps you to get the colors in your photos more accurate to what they actually represent. The bad thing about shooting JPEG files is that you can’t edit this after you’ve taken a picture. This is why we used raw image files, as you can edit the white balance after you’ve taken the picture.
Regardless of whether you’re going to start taking astrophotography seriously of you’re just looking to upgrade from taking pictures on your iPhone, having the right settings is crucial. Remember to give yourself a bit of a break if you’re getting confused or you don’t think you have the settings perfectly adjusted. Many astrophotographers have been doing this for decades, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get everything overnight.