Tripod Astrophotography

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
- Oscar Wilde

Taking pictures of the night sky is easier than you think. Just load some film, mount the camera on a tripod and open the shutter for a few seconds. You don't need an expensive telescope or other sophisticated equipment to be an astrophotographer. If you've taken pictures of a sunset or thin crescent moon then you've already been exposed to this great hobby. I hope the following information will provided you with some ideas of your own regarding astrophotography. I tried to cover all the major topics concerning simple "wide field" tripod astrophotography from equipment to final photograph. If you have any suggestions or ideas that maybe helpful then please drop me a line ( Thanks for visiting.
Clear Skies...

Equipment Things To Consider Gallery I Gallery II

Place your mouse over any text marked in red for an expanded definition.

Ideally the camera type best suited for astrophotography is a 35mm SLR with interchangeable lenses (See "Anatomy of a SLR" below for an example). It may be the camera you put away in the closet after buying one of the new fully automatic point and shoot models. Make sure it has a special "B" (Bulb) setting that allows for indefinite exposure times and requires no battery to operate the shutter. Cameras that require a battery to operate the shutter are ok if you plan to shoot subjects that require short exposure times. I own two cameras, one is a Canon AE-1, and the other a Minolta srT201 (The Canon requires a battery, The Minolta does not). If the camera requires it, always keep a spare battery on hand. Cold nights and long exposure times will quickly drain the life out of a battery. Here's a list of some of the most popular fully manual (no battery required ) cameras used for astrophotography. Expect to pay anywhere from $100 to $300 dollars for a used 35mm camera and lens. If your lucky you may find one at a flea market or yard sale. Good luck.

Olympus OM-1 Pentax K1000 Canon F1

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"What film should I use ?" is a question you may ask yourself when first starting out in astrophotography. Selecting the proper film can be confusing to both beginner and expert. Choosing the right film depends upon the subject (i.e. The moon, constellations, comets, etc...) you are trying to photograph. Try starting out with ISO 400 speed print film. The grain will be fairly fine and you should be able to capture the subject with relatively short exposure times. I like using ISO 100 or 200 speed films for twilight and lunar photographs and 400 or higher speed films for constellation and comet photography. Experiment with different films to get a feel for the unique qualities and properties each has to offer. For a general overview of the proper film needed for a specific subject please refer the "Shooter Reference" table. Most of your film with speeds between 100 ASA and 800 ASA can be purchased at your local Wal-Mart or drug store. Look for high speed films (1000 ASA and higher) at camera specialty shops. Here are a few films you may want to consider. Film

High Speed Films Kodak Ektar 1000
Fujicolor Super HG 16000
Konica SR-G 3200
Medium Speed Films Fuji Super HG 400
Fuji Super G800
Kodak Max 400 or 800
Kodak Royal Gold 400 or 800
Slow Speed Films Fuji Super HG 200
Kodak Royal Gold 100 or 200

Print vs. Slide Film - Some people prefer using slide film rather than print. Many of the one hour processing labs don't do a very good job when it comes to developing night sky photographs. With slide film what you take is what you get. It's all a matter of personal preference so I would suggest trying both.
Check out Astronomy.Com "Ratings of Film for Astrophotography" for more film info.

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Lens For beginners the best lens is a "standard" 50mm that comes with most SLR camera kits. It delivers sharp quality photographs even at maximum aperture settings (which is typically between f1.2 and f1.8). Higher quality lenses have lower f-number. values of 1.2 or 1.4. The most important thing for the beginner to remember is that the lower the "f" value the larger the lens opening. If your trying to capture a wide area of the sky (e.g. meteor photography) then a wide angle lens such as a 28mm would be a good choice. The majority of my photos were taking with a standard 50mm lens that came with the camera. After you get comfortable with this lens try a few others. If you decided to venture into using other lenses you may want to consider the following.
A basic set of lenses for the "Astrophotographer"

Wide-Angle 24mm or 28mm
Standard 50mm or 55mm
Short Telephoto 85mm - 135mm

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The tripod should be sturdy and light weight with the ability to pan the vertical and horizontal axis with little difficulty . The purpose of the tripod is to hold the camera steady during "long" exposure times. The word long is a relative term meaning anything slower than 1/60th of a second. Many cameras have a little symbol on the shutter speed setting (If you camera is shutter priority ) that suggest using a tripod for any speed that's slower. The camera has a screw slot located on the bottom while the tripod has a screw located on its top. Just mate the two together and you have a foundation for taking steady pictures (see "Tripod Camera Connection" below). Tripod prices range from $30 to $300 dollars. If your a beginner I would suggest a low to mid price tripod. You can always upgrade to a better one later.

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  Cable Release  
Camera With Cable Release A cable release allows you to open the cameras shutter for an extended period of time. It consists of a flexible tube or wire mesh with a threaded head that screws into a slot on top of the camera. A push button or plunger then activates the shutter. Some cable releases have a lockable thumb screw on the plunger that allows you to keep the shutter open while your away from the camera. This is a must for photographing star trails that require long exposure times. The alternative to not using a cable release is to hold the shutter release button down yourself. Not a good idea when the shutter speed dial is set to "B". Any movement of the camera during this period will result in fuzzy or out of focus photograph.

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Here's a list of items you may find useful when photographing the night sky.

Flashlight - Use a red filter (Your eyes will thank you).
Stopwatch - This is very helpful when trying different exposure times.
Note pad and pencil - Record your exposure times, Fstop settings, Date/Times, etc...
Bug Spray (Summer) - I have but one word - "Mosquitos".
Coffee or Hot Choc. (Winter) - It makes cold winter nights a little easier to handle.
Film Canister - You'll need this when you finish shooting a roll of film.
Clothing with Pockets - Very useful when you need free hands.
Spare Battery - If you camera needs one to operate the shutter.
Camera Bag - Especially useful if you use more than one lens.

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  Shooters Reference  

Use this as a guide when photographing a particular subject.
Because of factors such as light pollution and atmospheric conditions it may be necessary for you to take several shots of the same subject with varying aperture and speed settings. This process also known as "Bracketing" will give you a better chance of obtaining the desired photograph. The following are suggestions only and may vary with the above mentioned conditions.

Subject Lens Film - (ISO) Shutter Aperture Exposure Time
Auroras 28mm - 50mm 400 - 3200 f/1.4 - f/2.8 2 - 10 sec.
Comets 28mm - 85mm 200 - 1000 f/1.4 - f/2 10 - 30 sec.
Constellations 28mm - 50mm 400 - 1000 f/1.4 - f/2 10 - 20 sec.
Meteors 28mm - 50mm 400 - 1000 f/2 - f/2.8 5 - 20 min.
The Moon 50mm - 135mm 100 - 400 f/2 - f/2.8 0.50 - 2 sec.
Planets (Dark) 50mm - 135mm 400 - 3200 f/2 - f/2.8 4 - 20 sec.
Planets (Twilight) 50mm - 135mm 64 - 200 f/2 - f/4 2 -6 sec.
Satellites 50mm 100 - 400 f/1.4 - f/2.0 5 - 15 sec.
Star Trails 28mm - 50mm 25 - 400 f/2.0 - f/4 5 min. - 1 > hrs.
*The Sun 28mm - 50mm 25 - 400 f/2.8 - f/4 0.0125 - 0.25 sec.
* Never look at the sun directly - Use a filter such as welders glass or shoot when the sun is near the horizon.

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  Your First Attempt  

Make sure your first subject is something that's easy to photograph. Choose a night sky object that is relatively bright such as the constellation "Orion", "The Pleiades" or "The Big Dipper". Another subject that's easy to capture on film is a crescent moon near the horizon at dusk or dawn. These types of shots can result in some spectacular photographs. If at all possible get away from city or bright light situations. This will make a big difference in the quality and color of your photographs. To create a more personal effect try framing your photographs with other objects in the foreground such as trees, bridges or buildings. If you want to see some examples of this then visit the Hale-Bopp Homepage web site. Make sure your first couple of picture are daytime or flash shots. This will make it easier for those processing your negatives to find a starting point. The following is a step by step guide to setting up and taking your first astrophotos. Good luck.

Mouseover The Red Diamond for a View !!!
  • Load the camera with film.-----------------------------------

  • Set cameras ASA to match film.---------------------------

  • Advance film counter to 1.------------------------------------

  • Place camera on a tripod.------------------------------------

  • Set shutter to "B" (Bulb).---------------------------------------

  • Set to max aperture (lowest f number).----------------

  • Attach cable release to the camera.---------------------

  • Obtain subject in camera viewfinder.-------------------

  • Set focus to infinity.----------------------------------------------

View Guide

Take a series of photos with different exposure times and f/stop settings. Be sure and record aperture settings, film type, dates & times, exposure times and any other information that you may want to reference later.

After you've taken a roll of pictures the next thing is to have them processed. For beginners it's probably best to take your photographs to a one hour photo processing lab. Most of these places are willing to work with you when you make a special request. Be sure to mention that these are night time photographs. I would also suggest that you request that the negatives not be cut.

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  Image Enhancement  

If you're not happy with the final results of your photos from the local processing lab don't worry. Today's astrophotographer can improve on his or her work with the aid of image editing software. Image editing gives you the power to present your images in whatever manner you choose. Image brightness, contrast and color correction are but a few of the things you can manipulate using these types of software packages. About 90% of my images on the web have been edited in one way or another using image editing software. The better packages allow you to interface directly with your scanner or digital camera for direct editing of the image. Two of the most popular image editing packages are Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro. Try downloading a trial version (available from their respective sites) to see which is best suited for you. If you would like to learn more about image editing for astrophotography I would suggest visiting a site by astrophotographer Jerry Lodriguss entitled "Digital Techniques". This is a great site with tips, techniques and general information about image editing. The following is a list of list of image properties that I regularly *change before presenting an image to the web.

  • Image Brightness

  • Image Contrast

  • Image Size

  • Image Color (Including)

  •      - Hue/Saturation/Lightness
         - Red/Green/Blue
         - Gamma Correction
         - Highlight/Midtone/Shadow
  • Image Sharpness
* Typically for any single photograph some but not all of these properties are changed.

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A few links related to "Tripod Astrophotography".

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