Taking stunning photos of the night sky, capturing crystal clear skies and pin-sharp stars can be tricky for beginners. In this article, Steven Hanna tells you everything you need to know about how to take great Astrophotography photos.
An Introduction to Astrophotography with your X Series
I’ve always had a love and a fascination for space. My passion was intensified when a certain British astronaut, Tim Peake, sprung onto our TV screens as he prepared for his mission to the International Space Station. I followed intently and was mesmerised by his social media posts of what life was like on the ISS. I guess this then got me interested in Astrophotography and was the beginning of a new found passion of photographing the night sky.
I’m going to share a few basic tips for those of you who would love to start shooting the night sky, but perhaps don’t know where to start. It can seem quite daunting as there are many types of Astro images that you can take, with varying degrees of difficulty. Some can be captured in one single exposure, whilst others might take hours of exposure time. Some can be taken on a really basic camera and lens setup, whilst others require a telescope and tracking mount.
But, what I’m going to focus on is how you can shoot great Astro images using your Fujifilm mirrorless system. My body of choice is the FUJIFILM X-T2 . For me, I love the high ISO performance of the X-T2 and the amazing colours that the X Series can capture in the night sky. All the images in this post have been shot on the X-T2.
So, here are a few basic tips to help you get started shooting the night sky on your Fujifilm.
The most used App on my iPhone is probably PhotoPills, which allows me to plan my Astro shoots. It provides me with so much information on things like moon phases, when the Milky Way core will rise and where exactly in the sky it is going to be. This all helps me to plan where and when I can shoot.
The moon plays a massive role in the kind of night image you can capture. If you want to go after the Milky Way in all its glory, then you need to shoot when there is no moon in the sky, as the brightness from the moon will wash out detail in the sky. However, if you wish to shoot general Astro images with a few stars in the sky, then you can use the moon to your advantage and use it to side light your composition, just like you would do with the sun in the daytime. Again, a lot depends on what kind of image you want to take.
For focusing at night, you will want to switch your camera over to manual focus. What I normally do on my X-T2’s LCD screen is zoom in on the brightest star I can find in the sky and adjust the focus until the star is small and pin sharp. A good starting point is to set your lens to the Infinity mark, however, this is just a starting point as every lens performs differently. Then take several test shots, checking focus, until you are happy.
For those of you who maybe shoot a lot of landscapes, you’ll normally shoot at a low ISO, using an aperture around F11 to F16, and then use whatever shutter speed is required. With Astrophotography, things are a little different. Because you will be shooting in the dark (obviously!), you will want to shoot with a fast lens. For people who attend my workshops, I usually recommend shooting with at least an F2.8 lens as you want to let as much light in as possible. When I use the Fujifilm XF16mm lens, I can shoot wide open at 1.4. However, nailing focus is critical, so I normally stop down to around F2.
You then need to use a suitable exposure time to ensure you get sharp stars. Because we (on earth) are moving, you will find that if you use too long of an exposure time, your stars will appear as streaks in the sky instead of nice little pin points of light. The maximum exposure time you can use before getting star trails will be based on the focal length of your lens. There is a rule out there called ‘The 500 Rule’ which suggests you take 500 and divide it by the focal length (in full frame terms) of your lens to give you the longest exposure you can use before stars begin to trail. However, I have found this to be a ‘guide’ only. For most people using a wide lens, your exposure time is going to be somewhere between 20 – 30 seconds. As you start to experiment, you will find the perfect exposure time for your lens which gives you perfectly pin point stars.
Because we are limited to relatively short exposure times, we need to bump up our ISO considerably. I usually start around ISO1600 and start working upwards. Many things will affect what ISO you need to shoot at such as moon phase, light pollution etc., but once I agree on my aperture and shutter speed, it is then only the ISO that I will adjust, depending on what my histogram looks like. When I’m out shooting in a really dark sky area away from light pollution, I quite often have to shoot at ISO6400 when there is no moon in the sky. But if I was out shooting under a moon, I’ve shot as low as ISO400 before! Yes – the moon really is that bright!
Images of the night sky need to be edited slightly differently from normal daytime images, so it’s important that you shoot RAW so you can pull out more detail and colour in your final image.
A Red Light
Working in the dark can seem difficult, but when you’re out under the stars, you don’t want to be constantly putting on your head torch which can ruin your night vision. I suggest getting a head torch with a red light which will allow you (when necessary) to switch it on and not ruin your night vision.
Don’t touch the Camera!
As you’ll be using a good, sturdy tripod for your astrophotography, the last thing you want to do is cause any kind of camera shake. I sometimes use a cable release with the X-T2, but most of the time I tend to use the 2 second delay and the extremely useful Interval Shooting mode that is built in. This means I don’t have to be constantly pushing the shutter button!
Once you get the hang of the basic setup, you can then begin to experiment with other techniques such as shooting separate foreground and sky photos and blending them together. Perhaps these are topics for another blog post. So for now, I wish you clear skies!
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