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The Beginners Guide to Landscape Astrophotography




In the beginning


We humans have been enthralled by the night sky for thousands of years.  I wouldn’t doubt that in the early days we stared in wonderment at the stars above enjoying the (light pollution free) view of the heavens above.
We have even seen ancient drawings, religious writings, and historical documentation about the stars and heavens above.  Before the invention of the DSLR, photographing the night skies could be a very, very time consuming and expensive hobby.
With the invention and substantial improvements of the DSLR, today we are able to image the night skies without having to “mortgage the farm”.  Improvements to the low light (high ISO) performance have made even entry level DSLR cameras capable of capturing amazing images of night sky.
Modern processing techniques have allowed us to combine multiple images to make a perfect image.  Something that was very, very hard to achieve in the film era.
The learning curve is still somewhat steep and requires many sessions of trial and error to develop and perfect your own style of landscape astrophotography.  I will attempt to help you make the climb up that learning curve somewhat easier to ascend.



What to Expect


What can you expect from deciding to try your hand at Landscape Astrophotography?
This is a really hard question to answer, I’ve found that for each and every photographer, there is something different that they take away from the experience.  I can tell you that I’m sure that it’s an experience that you’ll never forget.  Many find it “Life Changing”.
There will be times that you will be frustrated, cold, uncomfortable, wet, scared (noises are scarier in the dark), and sometimes you may even get questioned by the police (yes that happened to me, MORE THAN ONCE!!!).
What I can tell you is that when you get an image like the one above, it makes it worth every single uncomfortable feeling that you may experience. 
Honestly, there is little to fear, so long as you know your surroundings and plan, plan, plan!
This guide is intended to help you get started.  I’ll be covering most of the subjects that I get asked most often.  I’ll touch on DSLR cameras, settings, lenses, tripods, other tools and tricks, and even some post processing.
Basically, everything you need to get started.
I’ll start off on the next few pages, with a summary of the basic equipment that you should have to get started.


The Camera

State of the DSLR market: Nikon vs. Canon vs. Sony/Minolta vs. Olympus vs. Panasonic/Leica vs. Pentax vs. Samsung vs. Sigma vs. Fujifilm digital SLR cameras, as of January 2009
image from http://www.penmachine.com
Despite what you may have been hoping, I won’t be pushing any product here.
What I will be say is that your choice of camera is a very personal thing.  I will suggest that you do your homework when it comes to buying a camera. 
Here are some things that you should keep in mind when purchasing a camera:
-
  • Initial cost 
  • Availability and cost of glass (lenses), both new and used 
  • Features 
  • Familiarity with the controls 
  • Weight 
  • Weather guarding 
  • Availability of accessories 
  • Reviews / Known Problems 

No matter what you choose there are some things you should be looking for in a camera.
At the end of the day it really is up to you.  Today you have the luxury of having entry level cameras that perform quite well in low light conditions. 

You can spend as little as a few hundred dollars, to several thousands of dollars.
I will state straight up that the more expensive “full frame” cameras will perform better overall for landscape astrophotography, they will perform better with high ISO performance (as a rule).

The above paragraph only holds true if it’s in the hands of a quality photographer.
No stove will make you a better cook, but a chef will perform better with quality equipment.


Lenses



There are many choices when it comes to lenses.  Here is another area where you can spend a little to a small fortune.

The rule here is faster the glass the better.  BUT, and this is a big BUT!!!  The image quality of the glass has to be workable.  You may find a lens that has a 1.8 or even lower, but the chromatic aberrations or “Seagulls” are so bad that it’s virtually unusable.

The key is to find a lens that has a pretty good balance between speed and image quality.


Another rule here is to look for a wider lens (lower number focal length).  This again, will allow for longer exposures without getting star trails.  It will also let you capture a wider scene with more stars in a single frame.

I know that many of you are wishing that I’d come out and state “you should buy lens x or lens y”,  but the truth of the matter is, that you should really do your homework and buy what you can justify, or afford.  Obviously many of us would like high quality glass, but few of us have the pocketbook for it.

As with any type of photography, it is better to spend more on the lens than on the camera body.  Lenses will work with another camera when you upgrade and will make any camera have crisper, clearer images.
A poor lens will always be a poor lens no matter what camera body it is on.  The best camera in the world will produce awful images with a poor lens.


Tripods


Tripods are a must!!!  Without a tripod you will not be photographing stars.  Exposures of several seconds to several minutes are the rule with astrophotography.  No human that I’ve ever met can hold a camera perfectly steady for that long.

When you select a tripod there are a few things that you should keep in mind.

The image on the left was exposed for about 20 seconds.  There is no way that I could have obtained the crispness and brightness in the image without a tripod to mount the camera on.

Another thing to remember is that you’ll quite often be “Hiking” in to where you are going to photograph.  You will want a sturdy tripod capable of holding a camera perfectly still, but you’ll still want it light enough to carry for a medium distance.

Obviously, the tripod of choice would likely be made from a light weight sturdy composite material, but if you’re like me and money IS an object you can get away with an older quality (but somewhat heavy) metal tripod.


Mounts



My camera is mounted on an old school Gitzo R3 head (video head), again, I am looking to upgrade to another head before long.  Personally I’ll be looking for one with leveling options and one that easily allows for level panning so that I have an easier time stitching panoramic images together.

It is a good idea to get a mount that is easy enough to operate in the dark, and one that can support more than the weight of your camera and some extra gear, which I’ll be getting into later.

There are also specialty mounts that will move on the axis of the Earth that allows you to photograph stars for multiple minutes without creating startrails.

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