Staring up at the stars and admiring the bright lights of distant galaxies is something that, once upon a time, we could only do with our eyes and imaginations. But with the surge in digital camera capabilities and popularity of astrophotography, it has never been easier or more affordable to capture beautiful images of the night sky.
If you’re just starting your astrophotography journey, here’s a guide to the gear you’ll need to buy before wondering where the WiFi is weak and the light pollution is low.
The sky isn’t even the limit when it comes to astrophotography. But in this guide we’ll mostly be covering the gear you need for shooting landscapes that feature the stars, rather than telescopes for deep space imaging.
Such astrophotography scenes are often associated with:
Low-light conditions – This means balancing long exposures and wider apertures to capture as much light as possible.
Subtle movement – The movement of the stars adds complexity to these low-light conditions.
Challenging elements – Taking pictures late at night in the middle of nowhere, often in extremely dark and cold conditions, can present a number of logistical and photographic challenges to overcome.
Weather – From clear skies to aurora activity and the Milky Way’s position at any given time or date, the weather plays an important part in astrophotography.
It is with these factors in mind that you should be considering your first (or next) investment in astrophotography gear.
Out of all your equipment, your lens will have the greatest impact on the quality of your astrophotography. So it’s worth allocating your budget accordingly.
The best lens for astrophotography is ‘fast’, i.e. has a larger maximumaperture. A large aperture lets more light in and allows for a faster shutter speed.
This is important in astrophotography because when capturing images of the Milky Way, you only have around 15-30 seconds before you start to see slight movement blur in the stars. And if you are lucky enough to capture the aurora of the northern lights, then your ideal shutter speed tends to be closer to 1-5 seconds.
This means you need the maximum amount of light that you can get at these shutter speeds without having to set your ISO too high. A lens with a maximum aperture (f-stop) of f1.4 to f2.8 is ideal for astrophotography.
Wide angle lenses with a focal range of 10-18mm* are preferred by most astrophotographers. Wide lenses allow you to most easily capture both the Milky Way stretching across the sky, as well as a foreground scene such as a mountain range, lighthouse or old cottage. However, many great astroscapes are photographed using focal lengths of up to 35mm*.
Coma (a.k.a. comatic aberration) causes point sources of light, such as stars, to appear comet- or UFO-shaped. Coma is most noticeable at the edges of the image frame, particularly when your lens is set to a wide aperture setting.
You can reduce the appearance of coma by ‘stopping down’, i.e. using a narrower aperture setting (for example, switching from f1.4 to f2 or f2.8). However, this increases your exposure time and so isn’t ideal for astrophotography.
A better solution is to use a lens with well corrected coma (or low comatic aberration). Such lenses will make stars appear sharper across the image, even at wide open apertures. Samyang lenses are widely regarded for their coma performance, though most major brands offer excellent lens options for astrophotography.
What You Don’t (Necessarily) Need
If you’re on a budget and looking to purchase an astrophotography-specific lens, you can consider buying a lens without the following features as they aren’t strictly a requirement for astrophotography:
Autofocus – In really low light conditions, most cameras struggle to autofocus. Most photographers end up using manual focus when shooting the stars.
Image stabilisation – When shooting on a tripod, as you always should with astrophotography, there is no need for image stabilisation.
Zoom – If you’re photographing astroscapes, as opposed to close-ups of the moon or a particular part of the sky, you’ll generally want to shoot at the widest angle your lens offers. This means a prime lens anywhere from 10-18mm* will cover most astrophotography scenes.
*Note: All focal lengths refer to full frame equivalent
A tripod is a valuable asset for any form of landscape photography but particularly essential for astrophotography. Even the slightest movement can cause the stars to blur in your photos and when you are capturing exposures of 15-30 seconds, handholding your camera is not a viable option.
A good quality, sturdy tripod that is light enough to carry with you is an investment that will likely outlast the rest of your photography gear.
Minimising camera shake is critical to taking long exposure images that are sharp. Therefore, a remote shutter release (either wired or wireless) – which prevents vibrations caused by you clicking the shutter button – is a helpful piece of astrophotography equipment.
While you could use the delayed shutter function on your camera instead, many remote shutters offer the added function of an intervalometer, which allows you to take a series of timed images that can be used to create a time lapse or a composite star-trail image.
A headlamp can serve a range of different purposes, making it a great addition to your astrophotography kit. Here’s a few reasons to pick one up before you head out:
Hands-free illumination in the dark – Getting to a great location often requires walking and setting up your camera in the dark. It’s helpful to have your hands free, and a headlamp gives you that option.
Focusing assistance – When you’re struggling to find focus in the dark, shining your light on a distant object to give your camera something to focus on can be helpful. Just being able to shine a light to let your lens manually focus at ‘infinity’ can come in handy in many cases.
Subject interest – If you want those classic ‘person looking up at the Milky Way’ type shots, a headlamp can not only shine a beam of light up toward the sky, but also help indirectly light your human subject.
Cold night-time temperatures can negatively impact your battery life. For this reason, it’s a good idea to have at least one backup battery and a plan for keeping your batteries warm when not in use.
If you’re planning on shooting a time lapse or star-trail composite over many hours, you’ll want a few batteries or the ability to connect your camera to an external power bank while shooting.
Last but not least, a big part of taking great astrophotography landscape shots comes down to planning. Knowing the weather forecast, as well as where and at what time the Milky Way will be in the sky on any given night, is key to capturing great images. For this reason, many photographers rely on computer programs or smartphone apps to help plan their next astrophotography adventure.