If you’re passionate about astronomy and photography, you may be interested in combining the two, something known as Astrophotography: where people photograph objects and events of the night sky.
While astronomy has been practiced for decades, astrophotography is more of a modern phenomenon. However, as both cameras and telescopes continue to evolve and become ever more powerful, astrophotography is becoming more popular.
However, if you’re new to the hobby, it can be a little confusing at first. The magnifying power of a telescope is so sensitive that the smallest change to its position can knock your image out of focus.
Not only this, but there are several technological challenges when it comes to the camera: cameras are designed for taking photos in daylight, yet you can’t use the flash when taking images of the night sky through your telescope.
However, while it is challenging to get good images of the night sky, it’s not impossible, and can be made easier with the correct equipment. It’s also mainly a matter of trial and error: in time you’ll discover what works, and what doesn’t work for you.
In this article we’ll take you through the basics of astrophotography, so keep reading to find out what equipment you need to take photos through your telescope.
What equipment do I need?
- A telescope; you don’t need a particular telescope; some modern ones feature a USB port, however most amateur or professional telescopes will do the job just fine. Ideally, though, you’ll want one with multiple eyepieces, as different objects have different optical requirements.
- A camera; you can use your smartphone camera if you don’t have a DSLR or point and shoot. The main thing is the quality of the camera, as the better the camera, the better the images you can produce.
- Adapters; this depends on the camera you’re using, as these adapters will enable you to securely install your camera onto the eyepiece. Without an adapter, the slightest hand movements will result in blurry images. Most adapters are available for a reasonable price and shouldn’t break the bank.
- (optional) A manual exposure app. Both iOS and Android offer the basic applications and for general photos these are great, however, you may require something slightly more advanced for your space photography. Some third-party apps have been designed with these options in mind, and Open Camera on Android is also 100% free. Unfortunately, there is no fully free equivalent option for iOS, but VSCO offers most features for free and has some premium filters and presets that you can pay for.
Setting up your camera
This should be relatively straightforward. For smartphone adapters, usually, you set your phone in the arms of the adapter and adjust it until the phone is held securely. Then you’ll simply need to align the camera with the hole, connect the other end to the eyepiece, and adjust accordingly.
Installing DSLR adapters can be a bit more complicated but simply follow the instructions that come with your adapter.
Lower exposure time for planets
This is where the manual exposure app comes in handy - your camera or smartphone is likely to get confused by the dark sky and will try to increase exposure.
However, when photographing planets, you need low exposure as with high exposure you’ll simply remove all the color and detail from your photo and will end up with a white smudge rather than a planet.
However, it becomes a little tricky when trying to photograph smaller objects, as if these are not very bright you’ll need more exposure.
Sometimes, high exposure removes the detail and color from the planet but manages to capture some of the orbiting moons.
This is why astrophotography is largely about trial and error.
Increase exposure time for stars
On the contrary, you’ll need more exposure when capturing stars. Increasing your camera’s shutter speed as high as possible is a good idea when trying to capture stars.
However, aim to keep it under 30 seconds, as any longer than this and Earth’s rotation will affect your shot, most likely resulting in a trail where the planet has shifted.
Set a Custom White Balance
Similar to automatic exposure settings, the default white balance settings are based on daylight and therefore aren’t suitable for taking photos of the night sky.
This is even more true if you’re in an area with high levels of light pollution, as the background of your photos will have a slight red/yellow tinge to them rather than black. Adjusting your white balance can fix this.
Never try to photograph the Sun
Regardless of what lens you use, the Sun’s light is too bright and can permanently damage your eyes.
There are some filters and methods used by professional photographers but you shouldn’t try this yourself, and never point your telescope directly at the Sun.
Don’t be afraid to experiment
There are no precise settings that will suit every camera and telescope, and because of this, the best way to find out what works best for you is by experimenting with different settings.
After all, this is all part of the fun as a beginner astrophotographer, and it can be exciting to find new techniques and settings that work for you.
Contrary to what you might think, you don’t need the latest professional equipment to take creative, quality images of the night sky.
However, it does help to have a good DSLR or smartphone camera, as the better the camera, the more detailed your images will be.
In terms of equipment, you need a camera, telescope, and adapter to take photos of space, and you can improve your images by using a manual exposure app, as like we said, cameras are programmed with automatic exposure settings that are based on daylight rather than night time.
Your location and the level of light pollution will also influence your photos, as well as your white balance and exposure settings. The most important thing is to keep trying new settings and techniques to find what works best for your camera and telescope.