Updated: Oct 19, 2021
A beginner's guide to the photography gear you'll need to start photographing the night sky
For as long as I can remember, I've been a fanatic when it comes to the night sky and what lies beyond.
As a kid, I had a series of books that my parents ordered from Time-Life that covered everything from our moon to the early moments of our universe; receiving the latest in the series was one of my favorite moments as a child. To this day I rarely walk outside at night without looking up at the stars, amazed at the vastness of space and humbled by my own insignificance in comparison.
I wanted to share what I learned with others that want to give astrophotography a shot but fear it's too complicated
Over the years - the past two to three, especially - I have been wowed time and time again by much of the astrophotography work that has been shared via social media. Two of the standouts from those I follow, Michael Shainblum and Sean Parker, have inspired me to not only improve my general photography skills but also to strive towards trying my own hand at capturing the night sky.
Thanks to some members of the Dallas Photography group on Facebook I was recently able to attend a night sky outing at the Fort Griffin Historical Site near Albany, TX. It's not quite an international dark sky designated location but I still saw more stars in the sky than ever before; Orion actually became difficult to see due to number of stars surrounding it! I've certainly never had that problem in the past.
Based on that experience, I wanted to share what I learned - both before, during, and after the session - with others that want to give astrophotography a shot but fear it's too complicated or just don't know where to even begin. As this was my first attempt and a huge learning experience, I plan to keep this as straightforward and focused on the basics as possible.
Before getting into the camera setup I used to capture star trails and the Milky Way, let's first review what items I brought based on input from some group members and from information I found online ahead of time:
THE RIGHT WEATHER
Okay, so you can't bring this with you but there's no point in venturing out if it's going to be cloudy, or worse. Be sure to check the hourly forecast in addition to the daily. Just because it's cloudy at sunset doesn't mean those clouds won't move out of the area before the stars come out (and, if shooting the Milky Way, you may have several hours before it rises, well after sunset).
THE RIGHT CAMERA
This astrophotography outing was my first shoot w/my new Canon 80D. You'll want a body that can handle higher ISOs without adding a lot of sensor noise, especially as you'll be taking potentially hundreds of shots for star trails and building up some sensor heat.
THE RIGHT LENS
Generally speaking, you're going to want two things out of your lens for astrophotography: wide angle and fast. I took two lenses with me, only one of which really met the aforementioned criteria. Since I'm shooting with a crop sensor I knew I'd want my widest glass so I brought my Sigma 17-50mm and my Canon 10-18mm. Neither are best-in-class and, in hindsight, I somewhat wish I had rented another option, such as the Rokinen 14mm f2.8, but I'm still happy with my results from these two lenses.
THE RIGHT TRIPOD
Be wary of relying on a light weight or flimsy tripod as you don't want your camera shaking during longer exposures (or, even worse, falling over). Ideally, you'll have a model that has a center hook from which you can hang your camera bag or tripod weights to help with windy conditions.
THE RIGHT APPS
I used PhotoPills to identify when and where the Milky Way would be visible. It also has built in tools to help you: calculate your maximum exposure time to avoid star trailing (accounting for your camera's sensor size and your lens' set focal length), plan for time lapses, find hyperfocal distances… and a ton more. There is a lot to absorb and play around with and, fortunately, the developers provide tutorials for using all the tools (I spent about 90 minutes watching videos the night before the group outing). The mode I found most useful, however, is the night AR (altered reality) mode. Click on this and you're taken to a live view of your surroundings with an overlay of the sky. You can use this view to scroll back and forth through times and dates to preview where the Milky Way will be in the future; a great tool to plan your shot well in advance, especially when it won't be visible until 3am! Additionally, you'll likely discover that a star finder app will be useful, if you're trying to find/identify constellations or just need help finding the North Star (and can't remember your basic education, like me).
THE RIGHT STUFF
Jump past the Milky Way for a rundown of some other items you'll need, or should consider, for night sky sessions.
(list continued below)
If wind is in the forecast, consider some weighted bags for your tripod. I found some on Amazon for a good price and filled them with quart-sized Ziploc bags that I half filled with decomposed granite. The set I ordered has four bags, enough to place one on each tripod leg and to hang one from the tripod's center hook. If you don't want to use weighted bags, or forget them, you can always hang your camera bag from the hook in a pinch.
EXTRA CAMERA BATTERIES
More important for star trails than shooting the Milky Way but you'll want an extra battery or two. Shooting 240 30-second exposures for star trails chewed through about 75% of a fully charged battery for my 80D, and I ended up using all three batteries I brought for the overnight session (only one was completely drained, the other two each had roughly 15-20% left). The next worst thing to not checking the weather forecast beforehand would be having perfect conditions and running out of juice halfway through your shooting.
INTERVALOMETER/WIRED REMOTE AND EXTRA BATTERIES
Another must-have for shooting star trails. Yes, you could shoot manually but who wants to stand or sit next to your camera for 2-3 hours hitting the shutter button every 30 seconds? I also discovered that the built-in interval timer on the 80D only allows for up to 99 shots, far short of the 240 I wanted. As for batteries, the intervalometer/remote probably doesn't draw much power but, again, you don't want to get halfway through your shots only to have the batteries unexpectedly die. I didn't think of that possibility before my shoot and was worried the whole time that my first attempt at star trails was going to be ruined because of my lack of foresight.
I already had a flashlight, and I had a headlamp, but the first was full-sized and the latter had only a bright white light. A few days before the trip I ordered a compact, powerful flashlight - for light painting, getting around, and for emergencies - and a head lamp that has a red light option. I only used the flashlight a few times to sweep the foreground during long exposures of the Milky Way but I used the red headlamp frequently as I walked to and from my camera and my chair or car, or as I needed to check various things on my camera or intervalometer here and there through the night. Remember, ideal shooting conditions are during the new moon; between that and (hopefully) being far away from light pollution, it will be much darker than you expect!
OTHER ITEMS TO CONSIDER
First aid kit
Balaclava (best purchase I've made for chilly nights!)
Pillow (I caught a snooze in the back seat of my car... the pillow helped... some)
Extra memory cards
Lens cleaning tools
Check out Part 2 of Shooting Stars, where I cover my actual camera setup and techniques (and lessons learned).