Hadley England loves nothing more than to turn his head upwards and become lost in the night sky. Here, he shares with us his quick-start guide to astrophotography in the Southern Hemisphere.
Important Environmental Considerations
Time of Year
In Australia, The Milky Way is highest in the cooler months of the year (from around May to October). It gets cold standing around late at night so pack a puffy jacket, gloves, a beanie and most importantly, a thermos!
Depending on whether you want a bright and defined Milky Way or some star trails behind a mountain, you’ll either want more or less light from the moon.
With less moonlight, more stars will appear, but if you want some natural lighting on some subjects or landscape the moon will light these up for you.
For the brightest stars you’ll want to aim for a new moon, use this website to help you plan the best time.
This can be tricky as it makes it hard to plan very far ahead; even a few stray clouds can ruin any hope of a clear star shot. Be packed and ready to go, if the sky’s clear, jump on it!
That being said, sometimes clouds can be used for creative effects. Slow shutter speeds will capture their gentle movement, help distinguish an element in the foreground or become a feature in their own right.
As a general rule, the higher up and further away from civilisation you are the clearer the skies will be. Cities and big towns give off a tonne of light pollution. For example, when I go to the top of the Blue Mountains, the light pollution from Sydney 70km away is enough to light up that portion of the sky. It’s not all bad though, sometimes you can use that stray light for some pretty cool effects.
It really depends on your relationship with the camera and your skill level. Having a great camera will mean nothing if you can’t use it, but if you’re skilled, you won’t be able to reach your potential with a cheap one.
A DSLR is a must, try and go for a full frame sensor and a medium to high pixel count, above 20 megapixels should do it.
The full frame on a DSLR allows more light in. Combine this with lots of pixels and a camera that can handle a decent ISO (more on this later) and you’ll reduce the amount of noise (grainyness) in the shot. End result: a crisper photo.
Even if your camera isn’t the best, give it a crack. It’s the only way to learn.
Decent glass can play a big part in the end result for any type of photography.
Firstly, you need to work out what sort of shot you’re going for, this will determine if you’re looking for a wide angle lens, standard 24-70mm or something more exotic.
I find my standard 24-70mm is the best for what I do as it doesn’t distort the sky or landscape around the edges like some wide angles. It also allows you to zoom in on interesting parts of the sky, though this exponentially increases camera shake.
Wide angles are amazing in their own way, they really help to capture the immense size of the sky.
A low aperture is a must for any astrophotography. Lenses perform best around 2-3 f-stops below their maximum aperture. Therefore, if a lens maxes out at f2.8, it’ll be at its peak around f5.6 to f8.
You might as well go home if you don’t have one. A sturdy tripod is essential to keep your camera still. Look for one that is solid and has some weight to it to hold it down on windy nights, but it still has to be light enough for you to carry around and compact enough to store/transport.
Getting these right will come with experience and practice, they really depend on the state of lighting, type of shot etc.
For still shots, try to keep exposures under 25 seconds, but this does depend on the lens. Beyond this point the movement of the earth causes star trails to become noticeable.
Try and avoid an insanely high ISO, I try and stick to 2500-3500, as you get too much noise if you go higher. You can get away with much lower ISO settings too, and they’ll look cleaner, play around with it!
Try and keep it neutral (automatic) you can always adjust it later on in Lightroom. If anything, I tend to keep it more on the blue/pink side of things, this helps to overcome the red/grey tinge that you sometimes get. That being said, if you’re shooting in raw you won’t need to worry about white balance.
Shoot RAW! You will need editing software like Adobe Lightroom to convert it back and it will take up a lot more memory on your card but this format gives you so much more detail and editing capabilities later on. Remember that you’re dealing with light that’s literally taken years to get here, give it the respect it deserves.
For Star Trails
For star trails you will need a remote to control the bulb setting on your camera, even pressing the shutter will ruin the shot. I aim for an exposure of around 30 minutes but you may choose shorter or longer depending on the size of the trails that you want.
I set my ISO at around 200-320 and keep my aperture fairly low.
Another way to achieve star trails is to take a series of still shots and stitch them together in later on in Lightroom.
Try and capture either the north or south celestial pole (the north and south axis that the earth spins on) as it creates a centre that the stars rotate around. To find the south celestial pole look for the Southern Cross, take the distance from top to bottom and extend it about three times from the bottom in a straight line, that will be your southern celestial pole.
Finally, tell your mates what you’re doing! You don’t want to waste half an hour with the shutter open just to find your friend ruined it with their headtorch.
This can be a bit tricky sometimes. I generally look for either a really bright star, the moon or a man made light in the distance to focus on. Set your lens to manual focus and zoom in as far as you can, you can also use the electronic zoom on the finder/screen to increase the size of the object you are focusing on. In the case of a star or light, the aim is to make the light as small and defined as possible.
Most of all, just enjoy the experience of being out under the stars, regardless of how good the end result is, nothing compares to actually being in the moment.
Here are some adventures with astrophotography in action…