Headed towards the fringes of our solar system, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has just succeeded in taking a photo 3.79 billion miles away from us. The photo, which captures the Wishing Well galactic star cluster, has broken records as the furthest image from earth to have ever been taken.
With this in mind, we have decided to delve into learning about astrophotography. While all of us might not have the funds or resources to send out a spacecraft, we can still succeed in capturing some pretty awesome images of space from right here on earth.
To start, find a location out in the open. If you live in the city or a highly populated area, take a weekend to travel to a place with limited light pollution. This will ensure that you capture a clear image of the stars, one that won’t be inhibited by the unnatural light here on earth. Try to plan your astrophotography adventures on a clear night, when the weather is supposed to be calm. Keep track of the moon, too. Go out on a night around the time of a new moon. With little moonlight, it will be easier to capture the stars.
Once you have taken into account the factors of your environment, make sure that your camera is set to manual exposure mode. Set the ISO to somewhere between 1600 and 800. This should brighten the photo enough that you will be able to see the stars.
Remember, the challenge with taking pictures of the night sky is that the stars are always changing positions as the earth turns on its’ axis. If this is not taken into account, then your images will appear streaky as the stars move across the sky. This is called “the star trail”.
An easy way to avoid “the star trail” is to use “the rule of 600”. Take the focal length of the lens that you are using (a wide angled lens is recommended) and divide it into 600. The number that you come up with is the maximum amount of seconds you should leave your shutter open for (600/ focal length = shutter speed).
After you have taken these measures, set your camera on a tripod and aim it at the part of the sky that you wish to photograph. If you have one, use a remote control or shutter release cable. This will minimize shaking as you take your picture. We recommend that after every set of pictures, you take a picture of the back of your hand. This way, when you enter the editing process, you will know that the series is done when you come across a photo that is all black.
During the editing process, don’t be discouraged if your photos are less bright or colorful than you expected. This can be easily fixed with a free software editing device called Deep Sky Stacker. With this software, you can overlay your photos on-top of one another (as long as they are from the same series). Then you can move this image into photoshop, where you can use the blue, red and green colors in the level to enhance the colors in the night sky.
And with that information, fellow space voyager, you may set off into the night! Use your newly acquired knowledge to capture some incredible pictures of the sky. It may not be as record-breaking as the New Horizon’s photo, but we still have a pretty awesome view from down here on earth.