People ask me and other photographers about camera gear all of the time. Actually, it's probably the number one question that people have. If you follow my Instagram feed, I've been talking about different settings and different processes that I've tried for a while but I never made a definitive guide to the way I like to shoot. Hopefully, this post will have something for you whether you're a beginner trying to get into shooting the night sky or an experienced photographer who is curious about my process.
PART ONE: PLANNING
Although I sometimes stumble into a killer location (like the above picture) accidentally, I usually begin a Milky Way shoot a few days or weeks beforehand by scouting out possible locations during daylight hours and then using websites like DarkSkyFinder to see if the level of light pollution in the area is acceptable. I also use an app called PhotoPills to see when the galactic center will be in line with what I'm shooting or at least when it will be close enough to make the shot interesting. It's $10 but WELL worth the investment. Almost every single night sky shot has been glanced at in PhotoPills and it has been an enormous help for me. Once I have an idea for a location, I'll use the planner in PhotoPills to figure out the best window for when I'd like to try the shoot based on the moon phase and position of the galaxy in the sky. Then, as the time approaches, I will keep an eye on the weather. Here, you have to be flexible. Sometimes, the only clear night during the proper moon phase (when there is no moon in the sky) will be in the middle of the week and you just have to suck it up and stay out late/get up early to make the shot happen. Sometimes, the forecast is wrong and it will be cloudy. It's frustrating. I've spent three days at a location to get a shot before! I was blessed with the opportunity to live in Hawaii for a few years so at least I wasn't freezing cold sitting there waiting for the sky to clear up. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do!
PART TWO: SETTING UP
There is no mandatory camera/lens setup to take these kinds of pictures. Cameras and lenses are just tools and your photos are each a different kind of job. Astrophotography is a specialized job that can be done several different ways. That said, you will absolutely need a tripod since these will all be long exposures and some cameras are better at this than others. Lenses are arguably more important for this type of shooting than the bodies themselves, so we'll go over everything.
The best kinds of cameras are those with full-frame (36x24mm) sensors. The newer the camera, the better it will be (generally) since camera manufacturers improve their internal electronics with each new model. APS-C sensor cameras have come a long way in the last five years also, but there aren't many that I'd recommend over a full-frame camera since the smaller sensor size inherently leads to a noisier final product. There are ways around this, it just takes a lot of time and practice. The absolute best cameras that I have tested for astrophotography are the Sony A7s/A7sII, the Canon 6D, and the Nikon Df. What they have in common are full-frame sensors with relatively low megapixel counts (A7s models have 12MP, 6D has 20 and Df has 16), which basically means each "megapixel" is larger in size and can collect more light, leading to a better signal-to-noise ratio. Again, most modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras can be used for astrophotography if you use the proper techniques, so don't think that you need any of this expensive gear to go out and take pictures.
Once you have a camera that's good to go, you'll want to pair it with the "fastest" possible lens, or a lens with a wide aperture of f/2.8 or lower. The lens's aperture determines how much light enters the camera, similar to the iris in the eye. The best lenses are fast prime lenses (lenses that don't zoom) that have apertures of f/1.4 and even lower. You'll want to use something with a wide angle, between 14mm and 50mm on a full-frame or 10mm to 35mm on APS-C. Wide angle lenses give a bigger field of view that will allow for more foreground and stars to be in the shot and also are usually a bit brighter because of some complicated math that I won't go into right now. As a reference, the above image was shot on a Sony A7r with a 55mm f/1.8 lens. It is a vertical panorama, which I will get into in the next article.
Now that you've selected your location and have your camera, your lens and a tripod, it's time to go out and shoot! You're going to use fully manual settings. No auto-ISO, no autofocus, no auto anything. White balance can be left alone because you'll be shooting in RAW and this can be adjusted later on, but setting it to daylight will save time later and generally looks great. The three big ones are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO (pronounced Eye-Ess-Oh). Shutter speed is determined by dividing the number 500 by the focal length of your lens. So if you are shooting on a 20mm lens, (500/20) equals 25 seconds. Multiply your answer by .66 if you're shooting on a crop-sensor camera. Next is aperture, which is easy since you want to be as wide open (lowest f-number) as possible to allow more light to reach the sensor. Last is ISO. Some cameras can handle ridiculously high ISOs with ease like the A7s. Most others can do ISO 3200 without issues and that is where I recommend you start. Other older and APS-C cameras can only really reach ISO 1600 before their image quality starts to fall apart, but stay as close to 3200 as possible. Next, you want to try to manually focus on something really far away like a bright star or a landmark using your camera's live view function and your lens's focus ring. A lot of cameras have the ability to zoom in during live view mode so that you can get a really good view of what you're looking at (use the button that looks like a magnifying glass with a (+) in it). Your lens should also have an infinity sign in it's distance scale that you can use as a reference, but these are not always accurate since things like temperature and humidity can influence how your lens behaves. Also, some lens manufacturers like Rokinon/Samyang suck at quality control so you can't trust their distance scales 100% of the time.
OKAY. So, you're accurately focused on a distant star, you have your camera on a tripod pointed at the galactic center and manually set to 20 seconds/ISO 3200 and f/1.4 and you're ready to go. Should you just press the button? You can, but it also helps to use the camera's automatic timer since pressing the button with your hand can result in movement or vibrations that will make your shots blurry. It also helps to use a wireless remote or on the newest cameras, you can use the wifi connection to make your phone a wireless remote. Cool? Fire away.
To wrap this part up, I'll summarize with a quick gear/settings list. An (*) indicates a must-have item.
-Planning apps, such as DarkSkyFinder, Weather and PhotoPills.
-Full-frame or APS-C camera capable of manually-set exposure.*
-Fast prime lense (less than f/2.8 aperture) or a zoom lens with a f/2.8 aperture.*
-Good location with very little light pollution, interesting foreground, no cloud cover and no moon.
-Manual mode, manual focus.
-Shutter speed between 10 and 30 seconds, depending on your lens (rule of 500).
-Aperture f/2.8 or lower.
-ISO as close to 3200 as your camera will allow.
-Remote shutter release.
I'll go over different shooting techniques in my next post! Stay tuned!