Astrophotography 101 - Expectations and Preparations

Sweet, you’ve spent $1,000, pictures will be flowing from your Ethernet cord onto the world wide web tomorrow, right?! Settle down tiger, it’ll come, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years of doing this it’s….be patient. And read/learn as much as you possibly can. And when you think you’ve read and learned everything there is to read and learn….go find more to read and learn (hint: there’s always more).

Before we delve into making super awesome amazing pictures, let’s talk about what astrophotography is and is not:

1) It is a rabbit hole and you are Alice, what you get out of this will depend on how far you chase the rabbit. If you are expecting amazing results out of the gate and being an awesome astrophotographer from day one you are going to be disappointed. Sticking your face up to the rabbit hole with throwing yourself down it will only yield mediocre returns.

2)Astrophotography is NOT a simple or easy endeavor. You will spend long nights out in the dark, stumbling around, making stupid mistakes because you’re tired/cold/distracted. You’ll spend even longer hours reading tons and tons of articles/tutorials online and trying different editing techniques with your own photos, post-processing is a time consuming and difficult endeavor.

3) Astrophotography IS addicting, it really really is. You’ll snap your first picture, a preview will pop up on your camera screen, and you’ll be addicted, I guarantee it. And when you finish your picture you’ll look at it and think “damn, I made that and THAT is awesome”. In my lightroom catalog I have about tens of thousands of exposures, that’s not even including the many thousands of shots I’ve taken for timelapse purposes. To this day, every single time I’m standing out in the dark and I’m looking at the star filled sky or at my camera screen after an exposure is done, my mind is blown. I love it, I’m addicted, I don’t think I’ll ever give it up (nor would I ever want to).

4) Astrophotography IS continually challenging, every single time you go out you will be presented with a different challenge, I promise you. Eventually you will figure out the recurring things that create those challenges and when you get good you will overcome those challenges faster, but they will always be there. One thing I’ve discovered is that other types of photography don’t interest me as much anymore, in fact I’d say many are borderline boring now, and I believe it’s because astrophotography (from taking the shot on location through editing the final image) presents such a unique challenge that once you figure it out the “challenge” of other types of photography isn’t as rewarding. But that’s also what makes astrophotography so addicting and why I keep going out at night to do it.

As cold as it looks

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Before you ever push the shutter release button and take your first astrophotograph you should do your homework, prepare yourself for the unexpected. Be aware of the phase of the moon, each month presents a roughly 14-17 day window of shooting the Milky Way based on the moon phase, and the time of the year, the Milky Way core is visible in the Northern Hemisphere from March to October. You will be going out at night, first and foremost buy yourself a headlamp (especially one with a red-light), I bought a $20 headlamp, broke the battery cover the first night I used it, taped it up and I’m still using it….2 years later. Don’t use a regular flashlight, you’ll want both hands free at all times, especially if you’re hiking around in the dark. Before you head out do some scouting, at a bare minimum you should be using something like Google Maps to find an area to shoot. Also, understand light pollution, use this website to find locations to shoot at to limit the impact of light pollution on your shots: I find that you CAN get images of the Milky Way in orange zones (Bortle 6, Google the Bortle scale), but no worse. Also, pick a location where you are shooting away from light pollution, even if you are 60+ miles away if you are shooting into major sources of light pollution it will be readily apparent in your images and challenging to deal with while editing.

Stay Warm

That sky is fire

Ok, you’ve got a location picked, it looks good on google maps (use the earth feature and pull up the images while hovering over a spot to get a sense of the geography), what are some of the other things to take with you? Warm and some waterproof clothes, even if it is summer, ESPECIALLY if you are going to the mountains. In Salt Lake City it will be 100 degrees in the summer, 70-80 at night, when I go up into the mountains it will be 40-50 at night. Wool socks, thermal base layers, a nice pair of gloves that allow you to use your fingers for fine movements, a light rain jacket, a beanie/warm hat…these are things that you should take just in case. Even in places like Arches, Zion, and desert places throughout Utah I’ve found myself putting on long sleeve shirts at night, temps can fall 40+ degrees from the day and you’ll want to do everything to stay comfortable during a long night of shooting. Wear good boots or comfortable shoes, you’ll often find yourself perched in awkward positions on uneven ground not sure if the drop off in front/behind you is 6 inches or 60 feet. Comfort is important, if your feet are cold, or your legs are tired, or your ears are frozen, you’ll be distracted and not thinking about composing your shot or even just taking in the beauty of the stars. In the mountains of Utah the weather can change in an instant, it’ll be clear skies and 10 minutes later a downpour, a rain jacket is usually a safety must.

Conditions can change quick - Stay Prepared!

Biscuit Basin

Water and snacks, pack plenty of water and don’t pack crappy snacks (fruit snacks and junk food, things that will give you a sugar rush and terrible crash later). Nothing worse than packing in a bunch of camera gear and getting that energy crash at 3am when you have to pack it all out. I find things like granola bars and mixed nuts to be invaluable for long lasting energy. As for energy drinks, I’m a coffee drinker and I’ll drink a cup before heading out, I’ll also take a total zero red bull (or any energy drink with zero sugar and zero carbs) so if I’m getting sleepy late I can keep my eyes open until the end of my shooting. If you don’t like coffee/energy drinks, don’t take them, stick to what makes you feel alert and awake. And don’t forget to drink water, water, water while you’re out there, you’ll be burning a fair amount of energy and you need to stay hydrated. Take extra batteries (double A and triple A) for things like flashlights and your intervalometer, make sure your cell phone battery is charged (you’ might need it for aligning the polar scope on the tracking mount, even if you are out of cell range), make sure your car is in good running condition and that you have basic car things like jumper cables (I have had to get jump starts no less than 3 times…ya, it sucks). If you’re camping make sure you have all your gear and accessories. Go buy yourself some hand/toe warmers (I’ll explain why later, not just for keeping your fingers/toes warm)!

Ok, you’ve got all your stuff packed and ready to go, one thing I’ve found that makes my life 100 times easier is scouting the location during the day. When I first got into this hobby I’d just rely on photos/google maps posted online for scouting, I’d think about my perfect shot all day long, go out once it got dark, stumble around to find the spot I imagined, and ultimately have to settle for something less than ideal. Now I have a process, I go to my location in the early afternoon, scout my angles (there are also apps to help with this like PhotoPills for iOS and The Photographers Ephemeris for Android) at my spot(s), then go back and take a good nap. I try to sleep for 1-2 hours before I shoot, this allows me to unwind from the day and clear my mind for a long night of shooting, plus give my body a break if I’ve been hiking a bit. I wake up, eat some food, drink my coffee and then go to my location and setup my equipment during astronomical twilight. Then I’m ready to start shooting after astronomical twilight or I can make changes if my angles/location or something just isn’t right.

Plan your shots!

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The last thing I want to discuss in this section is the weather and provide you with some resources. You obviously can’t shoot the stars if there is cloud cover, you should prepare your plans for shooting based on what the skies look like now and what you think they’ll look like overnight. I use this website to get regional views of the current cloud cover and trends of the clouds over the last 12-96 hours in the United States:

On the little map you can select one of the 3 digit names and it’ll pull up the current satellite image of the area. You can select Visible, Infrared (IR) either black and white or color, and water vapor. I mostly use Visible and IR, I use color IR in the summer to get more cloud contrast and B/W IR during the winter. Select a long timeframe in the drop down box and watch how the clouds move, try to get an idea of where the cloud breaks are now and where they could be in hours from now.

Also, in places like the desert southwest we get monsoonal moisture, this means afternoons during the summer thunderstorms will pop up and the sky will fill with clouds. Usually by night the clouds dissipate though, so look for patterns of cloud development, don’t just see a single image full of clouds and think “oh I can’t shoot tonight, it’s cloudy now.” In 2015 I mostly operated with that mindset and only went out shooting maybe a dozen times, in 2016 I told myself I’d go out no matter what and probably 90% of the time I end up being able to shoot at least some shots. Some of my best shots this year have come after I’ve decided to head to my shooting location while the sky is completely cloud covered, only for the clouds to clear at night and be full of bright stars.

A few other things you’ll need, especially for the tracking mount, you’ll need an app to give you the precise location of Polaris (the north star) in order to align your tracking mount to the earth’s axis. I use “PolarFinder”, it gives you options for tracking mounts which will display where you need to put Polaris in your polar scope. Once downloaded, make sure you have the mount set to iOptron, and take a look through your scope to get an idea of what it looks like. I also recommend downloading Stellarium, either to your computer or your smartphone, it’s a fantastic app which will show you exactly what is in the sky at a given time and date at your location. You’ll need your GPS location for the polar finder and Stellarium (if it doesn’t set automatically), there are free apps that easily give you that, once you have your GPS coordinates you can enter that info into those apps.

Next we'll discuss the critical aspects of Nightscape Photography, beginning with the most important factor for generating a high quality Nightscape Image, the lens: Critical Aspects of Nightscape Photography - Lenses