Astrophotography: Taking Awesome To New Levels

Remember when I said a few days ago that space was kinda cool? Well, it is. I’ve been spying on the “OMG SPACE IS COOL” geek club’s meetings and, I gotta admit, they’ve got me curious about this. Well, that and the Geek In Chief of the club constantly sending around photos from NASA’s Astronomy Photo of the Day saying things like “Whoa,” “Dude,” and “Killer…” (see my remarks on the Mother’s Day post about this group). So, anyway, what is Astrophotography and why does it matter?

*begin pedantic lecturing mode now*

Astrophotography is a very special branch of photography. Where some photographers specialize in sports, some in portraits, some in landscapes, and some in skylines, astrophotographers specialize in capturing the wonders of the night sky. Using cameras with slower shutter speeds, specialized lenses, and software the enables them to take photos in very low-light settings, astrophotographers bring us wonders such as GoldPaint Photography’s gallery, timelapse videos of the Aurora Borealis, and even photos of other planets taken through a telescope. Almost every day, our resident Space Geek features a photo from an astrophotographer on our Twitter feed. If the final photo of the day isn’t from an astrophotographer, it’s usually from an astronomer with NASA or ESA. Space Geek promotes astrophotography because it’s 1) fun, 2) full of beautiful images, 3) in harmony with our love of photography and space, and 4) surprisingly easy to learn.

While no amateur astrophotographer is going to be able to snap pictures of distant galaxies and nebulae (the Eagle nebula being my personal fave) at the resolutions seen from the Hubble Telescope, many can easily get wonderful pictures of the Milky Way, the solar planets, and even some of our nearby neighbors such as the Triangulum galaxy or the Veil Nebula.

First things first, if you’re interested in astrophotography, you’ll need to learn a bit of astronomy. Join a local astronomy club and start learning about telescopes, how to find things in the night sky, and how to read star charts (real ones, not astrological ones). It’s very difficult to take pictures of distant stars, nebulae, or galaxies if you can’t even find them in the sky!

Once you’ve gotten a solid grasp of astronomy, you should look into getting a DSLR camera that works well for astrophotography. You’ll want to pay attention to things like the ISO settings, white balance, noise balance, and shutter speeds when selecting your camera. Some camera manufacturers, such as Canon, have started making DSLRs with astrophotography in mind. The Canon EOS 60Da is one such camera. After you’ve selected the camera you want to use, spend some time getting acquainted with it. Don’t expect to take pictures of the Triangulum right away; start off with shots of the moon or the night sky without a telescope.

After you’ve gotten comfortable with using your camera, you’ll want to start looking into ways to mount it onto your telescope. The various mounting techniques and adapters can be expensive and difficult to learn and master so study up on them and select the one that works the best for what you want to do. “Piggy-backing” your camera and telescope will take some time to learn well so don’t get too disheartened when your first photos come out not looking like the glossy photos you see in Sky and Telescope.

In time and with practice, you’ll be taking photographs of the distant cosmos and hanging them on your wall for your friends and family to gaze at in wonder. Who knows? Some of your astrophotographs might even find their way to us and be featured in one of our tweets or in our gallery of Cool Photos We Like.

If you’re curious about getting into this field, here are some good links to get you started:

Catching the Light by Jerry Lodriguss
Sky and Telescope
The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide
Find a Local Astronomy Club

Remember, before you decide to do more than dabble your toes in this hobby, get in touch with the local astronomers and see if stargazing is something you can stick with before you shell out a lot of money on telescopes, cameras, and lenses.

Telescope Image: Idea go /
Night Sky Image: aopsan /
Aurora Image: nixxphotography /

*/end pedantic lecturing mode*

Seriously, space is cool. I’d kinda like to go there one day.

da Bird