Getting Started in Astrophotography


Astrophotography can seem like an overwhelming addition to amateur astronomy. Over the past several weeks I have attempted to photograph the night sky and will show you what has worked best for me using some entry level equipment and a little bit of research.

Step 1: Buying a Camera and Lens

While I didn’t buy the Canon Rebel SL2 specifically for astrophotography, virtually all new DSLR cameras will provide wonderful results for entry to intermediate level users. The 24 Megapixel CMOS (APS-C) sensor provides more than the necessary minimum for nighttime imaging. It’s standard kit zoom lens featuring an 18-55mm focal length is a nice starter lens and offers fairly sharp fields of view.

Step 2: Adjusting Camera Settings


Be sure to turn your camera dial to Manual Mode. This will give you complete control throughout the entire process. I’ve also configured a menu tab aptly named “Astronomy” which allows me to easily change some of the most important settings involving shooting the nighttime sky.

  • Image Quality-Raw and Large jpeg
  • Picture Style-Neutral
  • White Balance-Daylight (5200K)
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction- On
  • High ISO Speed Noise Reduction-Standard
  • Drive Mode-2 Seconds

Step 3: Mounting the Camera to the Tripod

The cheapest and easiest way to get into astrophotography involves using a tripod and your DSLR. After connecting the SL2 to the tripod, I chose Orion’s Nebula as my target. Before moving on, I had to determine the proper focal length, focus, aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

Step 4: Setting up and taking the Shot

  • Focal Length and Focus:
    How zoomed in do you want your image? This is what the focal length controls. I wanted a zoomed in image of Orion’s Nebula, so I chose to set my lens at it’s maximum 55mm focal length. To focus, make sure that your lens is switched to manual focus and use the digital magnifying feature to show a 10x image of the constellation in the live viewing screen. Slowly turn the focus ring until you get the sharpest stars possible.
  • Aperture:
    How much light is going through your lens and into your sensor? This is what the aperture controls. The best possible aperture for my zoom lens set at 55mm is f/5.6.  This is not a strong point of my kit lens. I hope to upgrade this to a fixed 50mm f/1.8 in the near future.
  • Shutter Speed:
    How long do you want your camera’s shutter open to allow light onto your sensor? This is what the shutter speed controls. I was looking for as long a time as possible to bring out detail in Orion’s Nebula, without creating star trails. There are a lot of ways to determine how long the shutter can stay open without creating star trails. The website LonelySpeck has an excellent calculator for determining this setting. For my camera’s sensor and zoom lens set at 55mm, 4 seconds was the longest length of time I could afford.
  • ISO:
    How sensitive do you want your camera to be when the shutter is open and light is hitting the sensor? This is what the ISO controls. Increasing it will brighten your image, but also increase digital noise. Finding a balance between sensitivity and image quality will vary depending on your camera’s sensor. For my Canon SL2 shooting Orion’s Nebula a setting of ISO 3200 gave me the best results.

Step 5: Post Processing

  • How much detail can you bring out of your image? This is what imaging software controls. Canon’s Digital Photo Professional 4 is free software provided by Canon if you buy their products. It is excellent for editing RAW images, which contain much more image information than jpeg files. There are a variety of paid and free choices from Adobe Photoshop to Raw Therapee. The learning curve on these can be pretty steep, but I have found DPP4 to be fairly user friendly and powerful. The most useful settings for me so far have been contrast, shadow, highlight, color tone and color saturation.

The Final Result:
Orion Nebula: 12/27/17
Canon SL2, 55mm, f/5.6, 4 Seconds, ISO 3200
Enhanced and Cropped with Digital Photo Professional 4


There have been several sources that have provided me with a lot of the information presented in this article. “The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide” has been my constant companion as I have expanded my interest in amateur astronomy. That book, along with the websites ImprovePhotography, Astropix and LonelySpeck have given me tremendous assistance in my early efforts at understanding astrophotography. Hopefully, this article helped you as well. Please leave a comment with any questions or suggestions you may have.


Astrophotography Coming to Late Night Astronomy

With my wife and I purchasing our first DSLR camera from Canon, I am taking my first steps into DSLR astrophotography. A new page has been added to the website where I will post my attempts at tripod long exposure astrophotography and eventually imaging through my telescope of the Moon and Planets.

Canon EOS Rebel SL2


Bringing Detail to Jupiter and the Moon

In 2015, I detailed my “Small Steps into Astrophotography”. Since then, I have done little with imaging and processing. That is, until this week. I’ve returned to the complicated, yet rewarding, world of astrophotography. To start, I focused on two great targets for beginners, Jupiter and the Moon. Jupiter, which is near opposition, is as big as it will get in the night sky and the Moon is always a good choice for learning the basics of imaging.

Capturing Video
I began by holding my iPhone 6 over the eyepiece and captured about ten seconds of video for Jupiter and the Moon. The 1080p resolution of the iPhone does a good job at capturing the fine detail on these objects.

Once the videos were captured, I had to find a program that could take my iPhone footage and convert it to a format that my photostacking software could work with. I chose to go with PIPP, Planetary Imaging PreProcessor.

Registax 6
Even though I’ve had some previous experience with Registax 6, I couldn’t remember much about it and had to look up some tutorials that explain the basics of the program. Through this Registax 6 Tutorial, I followed the steps outlined and turned my videos of the Moon and Jupiter into stacked images that brought out fine surface detail.

Jupiter, about halfway through the Registax 6 process.PhotoStacked Image, Pre Wavelets

Premiere Elements
To finish up with some additional adjustments to the lighting, sharpness and color hue, I used Adobe Premiere Elements to make some final enhancements.

The Final Results
Jupiter and two of it’s moons, Ganymede and Io.Jupiter, Registax, 3-16-16

The Moon, featuring Montes Apenninus.Montes Apeninus, Registax 3-16-16


Small Steps into Astrophotography

Since the invention of the telescope in the 17th Century, an astronomer’s limit of what can be viewed through the eyepiece has always come down to the sensitivity of the eye peering through the lens.  With the invention of photography in the early 19th century and the digital revolution of the late 20th century, the limits of what can now be viewed depend much more on the image sensors, exposure times and tracking systems being used by the observer. As far as we have come in amateur astronomy and digital photography, astrophotography continues to be a complex and expensive extension of this hobby.

Thankfully, the technology to begin experimenting with this process has become embedded in devices used on a regular basis. Late in 2014, I bought the iPhone 6, which among many of its improvements, boasted of an enhanced camera. To test this and try out my hand at astrophotography, I took a couple shots of some of the night sky’s most well known targets.

Orion Nebula
Orion's Nebula
Starting with Orion Nebula, I had little expectation for success. As I slowly adjusted the iPhone 6 over the eyepiece, the image came into auto focus, and I was surprised to see the brightest parts of the nebula appearing on the screen. I snapped a handful of images and video, with the one shown above being the most impressive in terms of the gray cloud-like detail of the nebula and sharpness of the Trapezium Star Cluster, located at its center. To my eye, the Orion Nebula appears as a soft bluish-green cloud, but to achieve that through a camera, a longer exposure would be needed.

Pleiades Star Cluster
Moving the scope over to one of my favorite star clusters, the Pleiades Star Cluster revealed the most prominent of the Seven Sisters in sharp detail.

Jupiter and the Galilean Moons
Jupiter along with its moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto proved to be a difficult set of objects to accurately capture together. The aperture was a difficult thing to adjust while holding the camera lens over the eyepiece. While it is nice to be able to see the four major moons of Jupiter in this image, collecting enough light to capture them, leads to an over exposure of Jupiter itself. While the major cloud belts are perfectly viewable through the eyepiece, they are washed out in the image.

Astrophotography has been one of those things that I have dabbled in from time to time, but never taken seriously due to a lack of proper equipment. These examples, however, show that with a bit of patience and a smart phone, you can begin to explore the world of astrophotography.


Photo Stacking-Easter Sunday: April 4, 2010

Easter Sunday
The morning of Easter Sunday found my sister Abby and I sitting in Church when the reverend asked all the children to come up to front.  Abby, who like me, can be as shy as she is outgoing, decided to stay back with me and watch.  The reverend talked for a few minutes about the the rise of Jesus and brought out bags filled with candy and treats that he presented to the kids.  As the kids dispersed back to their parents, he walked back up to the front of the Church when it was pointed out to him that my sister had not gotten an Easter bag.  He walked over to us and said “Well, it looks like we have a little girl who might have been a little shy about coming up with the other kids today, and we certainly don’t want anyone to be left out on Easter”.  He then handed Abby an Easter bag and the smile on her face made for a good start to Easter Sunday.

RegiStax 5
A great Easter lead to clear skies in the evening, meaning that tonight would be the perfect opportunity for my first attempts at photo stacking images of Saturn and Mars taken through a digital camera.  Photo Stacking works because the digital camera films video at 640 by 480 pixels 30 times a second.  This means that in 1 second, 30 pictures are taken, and if just a few of those are good quality, they can be stacked on top of each other by photo editing software, creating a very detailed image if conditions are right.  For the images of Saturn and Mars I used RegiStax 5 to capture and edit the images.

Saturn & Mars
To achieve the images of Saturn, I held the digital camera up to the eyepiece of my telescope.  The hard part was finding the planets in the field of view, this is best achieved by using no optical zoom until you find the bright blur that will be the planet.  Once this is found, use as much optical zoom as is feasible and then refocus your telescope so that the image in the LCD is sharp.  Saturn was much easier to focus than Mars because of the sharpness of its rings being much easier to distinguish than the smaller blur of Mars’ sphere.  After taking these videos, I then uploaded the video into RegiStax 5 which then analyzed and chose the best frames to stack of Saturn and Mars.  The results were stunning.

In Saturn, the division between the rings can just be made out along with a faint cloud belt right below the rings.
On Mars, the polar ice cap along with some land features show up in the South West portion of the Red Planet
Note: In this example the two images of Saturn were stacked with the image of Mars being only 1 frame.