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Up for Discussion – Astrophotography

stacking-milky-way-astrophotography-stars

For today’s Up for Discussion I thought I would ask John Holding to write a post for you on Astrophotography.  I know many people are interested in this, me included, and I have been going out with John to do some of this photography and he has been teaching me a lot, so it seemed only natural to ask him to write a post for us.

Astrophotography by John Holding

Ever since my youth I have been fascinated by the stars. Many nights a friend and I looked through his telescope at various stars. A task somewhat easy as I lived in country town in South Australia. There were also many nights spent camping where one could lie out under the stars and just admire their glory.

Since taking up photography and having much more time available it has become one of my goals to take stunning Astro photographs. At first take this is inherently simple, just point the camera at the night sky and bump the ISO to greater than 3200 and exposure time to about 30 seconds and f stop as small a number was your lens will allow. Now assuming that one is in a fairly dark area one can get an OK shot. Much like this one.

milky-way-astrophotography-simple

 

This is a 30 second exposure at ISO >6400 on a F/4 fisheye lens.

However to get really stunning shots one has to go for longer exposures or start stacking the images, a somewhat more complex task. However there are some very good choices available in software specifically designed for such a job, Nebulosity being one but there are others. Stacking can also be done in Photoshop using an averaging technique. More on that later.

Like many areas of photography getting an image is a compromise. In this case much more so. For images that have minimal star trails the exposure time must be less than 30 seconds and if you are using a lens greater than 16mm (35mm equivalent) then the duration may have to be less. Additionally one will get less of the sky in the image. Which sometime makes the image less dramatic. Typical settings that will work are: set ISO to 3200 or greater, exposure time to 30 seconds and the aperture as wide as the lens will go. Oh of course you must have a tripod.

Out of this assuming that the sky was dark enough (no glare from city lights) one can get a reasonable image. From here one has to get much more determined and firstly start paying attention to the night sky rotation which changes what part of the Milky way is visible from your respective hemisphere. These days there are iPhone and android apps that do the job nicely. Once you know where the heart of the milky way is and what time it will appear over ones position one can set about planning the shoot. Additionally the moon should not be present or if it is then less than quarter moon.

Often the best astro photographs have an earthly reference, that is a close foreground object that anchors the viewers sense of scale and grandeur as well as adding interest to the shot.

Once you have your image/s then it is time to take an exposure of the landscape feature that you want to include. This is especially important if you are going to stack the images as the stars will move in every image and any landscape foreground when you align the stars will become blurred.

Next step is adjust each exposure in Adobe Camera Raw (assumes Photoshop Bridge is available ). Make the following adjustments: Increase contrast, decrease blacks, increase clarity, increase shadows, if needed adjust white balance and exposure until your image is where you like it. Below are examples of a before and after adjustment. You can still do this even if you have captured the image as a jpeg instead of RAW. Both images are 180 seconds at ISO 3200. (How I achieved 180 seconds is described below). Much less noise than the image above. If you look closely you can see the rotation effect in the lights in the lower left. PS that is Leanne’s camera in the image.

milky-way-astrophotography-unprocessed-fisheye

 

 

milky-way-astrophotography-processed

 

For stacking in photoshop each layer will need to be carefully aligned, pick a star or two near the middle of your image and with opacity set so you can see both layers move the top one until the stars align. Repeat for all layers. Then blend each layer to roughly the following formula: 1st layer 60%, second 33%, third layers 25% decreasing each layer opacity roughly in these proportions. Finally bring the first layer ground feature out by your favourite means (don’t ask me as I actually haven’t done much of that sort of work in photoshop). Finally you will get noise in the image but less than unstacked images.

For exposures greater than 30 seconds one has to get hold of an equatorial mount used for telescopes and mount you camera on that. Once properly aligned (alignment means the pivot point of the camera is parallel with the earths axis and points due south, two levels of alignment) you can drop your ISO and hence reduce noise and increase the exposure time into the minutes. I use a device called Astrotrac, which once aligned, and that is no different to an equatorial mount, allows image duration over several minutes. This means much less noise and no need to stack images. The downside is that the landscape will be blurred as the camera rotates at the same rate as the earth.

Good luck with your attempt at Astrophotography.

A few more images taken at various times and locations.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank John for writing this post, so thank you John, and I hope you will all do the same. I will put the above images, plus a couple more of his images into a gallery for you.

 

68 Comments
  1. Wonderous images. I think we were all captivated in our youth by space, the final frontier (Shatner is a fellow Canadian), but now as you have shown its much more accesible. Thanks

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Thank you Victor, hope it inspires your venture into Astrophotography.

      July 8, 2014
  2. Wow, great post, thanks for sharing 🙂

    July 8, 2014
    • My pleasure

      July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Thanks Irene.

      July 8, 2014
  3. Jackie Saulmon Ramirez #

    John Holding does great images of the Milky Way! The fish eye is certainly interesting; it seems to magnify the image. Beautiful!

    July 8, 2014
    • He does Jackie, I’ve learned a lot from him.

      July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Thank you Jackie, still much to perfect with Astro images, work in progress.

      July 8, 2014
  4. Wow thanks Leanne and John for sharing your knowledge. This opens up a whole new field for me and reason to stay up! The milky is a fantastic sight, but being to capture its grandeur is sensational. Chris

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Thank you Chris, look forward to seeing your shots.

      July 8, 2014
  5. lensaddiction #

    Lots of technical stuff to consider in there, I have a friend who is quite seriously into astrophotography, the lenses for that are REALLY expensive, even the cheap ones! Not something that majorly spins my wheels but I have seen some really nice pix of the Church of the Lonely Shephard in Tekapo which is now a Dark Sky reserve.

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Like all things with Astrophotography it can just get more and more technical. I always look for an easy approach as it makes life easy. Of course that limits the level of perfection but I just can’t afford to go out and buy the equipment required to do deep field and wide field to a greater level.

      July 8, 2014
  6. sandlera #

    My husband is an amateur astronomer who does imaging, meaning he hooks up a special camera to his telescope. He captures images from deep space. They are stunning. I know he would love for me to do night sky photography.

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Well now you can tag along and do wide field astro while he does the deep field. Deep field is something I would like to do but I can’t afford the equipment.

      July 8, 2014
  7. Thank you for posting! I didnt know to do the exposure for night photos.

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      thank you photofoxed, now its time to go out and try, just get away from large cities if possible and it should work.

      July 8, 2014
  8. Reblogged this on Giai01's Blog and commented:
    xem

    July 8, 2014
  9. A very good overview on how to do astrophotography.

    I would also suggest that a star chart or a program like Stellarium be used to help pre-plan a photo session so you know which stars and constellations you’re looking at.

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Than you David.
      There are dozens of apps(iphone) available I use Goskywatch for a visual rep of the night sky and Spyglass to align the Astrotrac unit that is when I have a reference for it to use to align its compass accurately. Otherwise its down to single 30 second images and stacking.

      July 8, 2014
  10. Superb, Leanne! Another field that you are becoming an expert! Great job! 🙂

    July 8, 2014
    • Thanks Fabio, I am getting better, though this is the work of John, he knows what he is doing. 🙂

      July 8, 2014
  11. that first shot is like incredible ……. very kewl 🙂 Q

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Thank you.

      July 9, 2014
  12. Great topic. I’ve tried this on a couple of occasions since you mentioned it a while back (unsuccessfully). I will have to give it another try. Thank you for sharing John.

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      My pleasure James, good luck with your next try.

      July 9, 2014
  13. Outstanding photography and great article.

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Thank you Mary.

      July 9, 2014
  14. STUNNING photos! 🙂

    July 8, 2014
  15. Thank you both for this wonderful post. I have always loved seeing photos of the milky way.
    I have never tried it myself, I found it kind of intimidating, thinking it would be way out of my area of expertise, but John makes it seem so much simpler than I thought it would be.
    I will definitely be trying this.
    Thanks again 🙂

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Thanks Tracy, do give it a go, would love to see your results.

      July 9, 2014
      • I’m really excited to try this. In our neck of the woods, on a clear summer evening, we get a great view of the milky way.
        With the tips you gave in this post, I’m now hoping I’ll be able to catch it on camera. 🙂

        July 9, 2014
  16. I will get up my courage to try this soon!! Great article and wonderful photos!! Thank you Leanne and John!!

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Thank you, by all means do give it a go its not that hard.

      July 9, 2014
  17. Hmm I thought I commented on this but I notice it doesn’t show. I wanted to say that this is such an informative post! I would LOVE to try astrophotography and hopefully by the end of this month i will be able to. I understand now what is meant by “stacking images”. Isn’t there an action for that? LOL. I want an action for everything. I’m lazy. I love your fisheye lens and what it created! fabulous.

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Hi Laura, thank you for your lovely comments. Look forward to seeing your astro shots.

      July 9, 2014
      • You’re welcome! I hope to get some in the next couple weeks. We’ll see! Thank you 🙂

        July 9, 2014
  18. Lots of great information for someone looking to experiment. Thanks John and Leanne

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      You are most welcome Ben.

      July 9, 2014
  19. thank you leanne/john for posting this very informative article. it explains very well the results i am getting (or not getting 🙂 ) in my first astrophotography attempt. cheers!

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      SO glad to hear that you are out doing Astro work. My first attempts were not that good either, but thats part of the fun, love learning.

      July 9, 2014
      • hi john, i am just dabbling at present. have to travel quite a distance to escape the bright lights and find a safe spot, and finding time to do it. yes, live and learn, always :). many thanks for your reply.

        July 10, 2014
  20. I love this genre but how do you manage a night sky from the city with all the ambient light?

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Thank you Anurada, astro shoots taken from a city just don’t work. We travelled about 90km’s to get skies near dark enough.

      July 9, 2014
      • That’s what I thought. Sadly makes it near impossible for me. All the better you post such awe inspiring shots on your blog 🙂

        July 9, 2014
  21. You should more talk about this topic. I ever tried astrophotography but gave up due difficulties to get rid those noise. Plus, its getting hard to find good spot as my place’s affected by city light.

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Thanks Tri, yes noise can be a problem and to get rid of it does mean much more attention to the detail involved in getting those shots. Some blogs I have read talk about merging 100’s of shots and some of the equipment used runs into the 10’s of thousands of dollars. Still one can get reasonable shots by ensuring nice dark night and stacking a few images.

      July 9, 2014
  22. Absolutely beautiful photos. Astrophotography – so far over my head as a beginner photographer but definitely something to strive for. Thanks to you both for the magnificent post.

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Thank you Irene, thats the beauty of photography as a intellectual challenge always something to strive for.

      July 9, 2014
  23. There isn’t any place within 80 miles of where I live where it is dark enough to do this, but it looks like fun.

    July 8, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Thanks Ron, yes it is fun but city lights are a huge problem around the world now.

      July 9, 2014
  24. Reblogged this on Sweet As A Peach and commented:
    I’ve wanted to learn how to take pictures of the night sky for so long! We’re planning a trip to Cherry Springs State Park, one of the best stargazing spots on the East Coast. But I desperately want to learn how to do this first. What a great, helpful post!

    July 9, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Thank you, you can just practise in a city if you can see some stars but you will get an awful glow in the sky and weak stars, but at least you will have had some practise before you get to a better location. I have done the same when learning, helps a great deal to become familiar with the process.

      July 9, 2014
  25. I enjoy astrophotography and would like to get a couple photos of the milky way. I think what I want to get more into though are the star trails so purchasing a device to keep with the motion of the stars would not be cost effective for me. I find star trails to be very fascinating. I wish I had more time to do so but live in town and don’t have many opportunities to make it out somewhere that I can get successful shots. I do have one photo that I may post soon of star trails I did as an experiment. I’m hoping in the next few years of getting a house in the country and when that happens I think I’ll get into this a bit more. I’ve done all the research and some experimenting and know how to do it, now I just need the time to perfect it and the right place to start making interesting photos. 🙂

    July 9, 2014
    • johnholding #

      Thank you Justin, Not tries star trails much think I have one photo which was not very good. Look forward to your post.

      July 9, 2014
  26. Thank-you for posting this. I was able to try this last week. Im going to upload them to my blog. Would you be able to tell me what size you use when you upload photos. Also are you okay with me linking this blog so I can credit from where i learned?

    August 9, 2014
    • That sounds great, good to hear the article helped you, John did a great job with writing it. I usually change my images so the longest side is no more than 1000 pixels. Of course you can link back to the post, absolutely no problem with that at all.

      August 9, 2014
      • Thank you. I really appreciate your help!

        August 10, 2014
      • You’re welcome. 😀

        August 10, 2014
      • http://wp.me/p4zmzq-6q
        Here it is if you want would like to see it. 🙂

        August 10, 2014
      • I did take a look, you did a great job, did you have fun doing them.

        August 10, 2014
      • Yes I did! It was so cool seeing the unseen from the naked eye galaxy light get exposed!

        August 11, 2014
      • I agree, it is totally amazing, I love it. Look out it doesn’t take much to get addicted.

        August 11, 2014

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