I was thrilled to learn that a new moon would fall on the one night I was camping at Big Bend National Park. I have never tried to take photos of the night sky before, but it felt like the stars were lining up for my first attempt at astrophotography. After Big Bend, I traveled to Sequoia National Park and tried to take some photos there as well. Here is a list of my mistakes and some solutions, and some helpful hints for anyone else interested in astrophotography:
1. Lens – the wider the better? I shot on a 28mm and wish I had brought my 24mm. My supervisor showed me some shots he got while traveling, and now I’m really pushing for a 14mm the next time I go out.
2. Shooting Format – another mistake I made. I did not shoot in RAW format because I wanted to preserve space on my (one) SD card during my trip. In retrospect, the amount you can do with RAW during post editing justifies all of the space it takes up. Shoot RAW and JPEGS with every frame, and you can benefit from a post trick many astrophotographers use called “stacking,” which results in more vibrant stars and punchy skies.
3. Exposure – I shot wide open, at a 2.8 with nothing over 640 ISO. I wish I had boosted my ISO more. I read one website that suggested staying at a below 800 in order to keep noise down. The truth is, if your camera is powerful enough in low light PLUS you shoot RAW, and noise from a high ISO can be quickly pulled down and eliminated in post. Again, comparing with my supervisor he told me he shot all the way to 3200, and his photos were amazing (milky way colors galore).
4. Shutter – These photos were all taken on a 30″ shutter. Going much longer (perhaps on bulb mode) would result in longer light trails from the stars. Using a slow shutter ensures that you are picking up all the light you can!
5. Focus – I read somewhere to focus the lens to infinity. When I tried to do that, my stars were extremely soft (like water droplets on a lens). Using a 35mm lens on a APS-C sensor with a lens adapter lends itself to weird focusing points. I ended up shooting most of my stars at a focal length of 2 feet, and was still unhappy with the results. The only way I was able to get closer to focus was by turning peaking on my camera and watching for little points of light to start bubbling up with peaking as I focused.
I shot with a Sony a6000, 28mm lens, 640 ISO, 30″
Here is a website that includes a good tutorial on how to edit your photos in Lightroom. The transformation is incredible! It also includes a “Milky Way Exposure Calculator” which can be helpful finding the difference between sensors and exposures. It can be found here.