For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by photographs of outer space. Whether it is the glowing moon hanging in the night sky, the banded clouds of Jupiter or multicolored nebulae light years from Earth, these kinds of pictures have a consistent ability to thrill me. Recently I began experimenting with taking some photographs of space myself, and whilst my results could never hope to come close to the majestic photos taken by Hubble and its companions, the results can be quite impressive with even the most basic equipment. Quite simply, if you own a camera, even only a low quality one embedded in your phone, chances are you can take something to be proud of.
My efforts at astrophotography so far have mostly centered on the moon. It’s a good target to begin with: lots of available light, easy to locate and it can be photographed well without any magnification. In fact the most basic of space photography can be done by simply pointing your camera skywards and clicking.
I would highly recommend a tripod if you want to take photos like this. Don’t concern yourself with spending any great amount of money on one though, my current tripod cost me £3 (about $5) and came from a car boot sale (the equivalent of a flea market) in the local school car park! More expensive models will clearly offer advantages but for beginners, a cheap model should happily suffice.
If you’d like to shoot something a bit more detailed than this, you’ll need some magnification. Whilst the higher you go, the more detailed your photos will be, again don’t think you need top dollar telescopes to take something. I bought a pair of binoculars for £1 at the pound shop (the English equivalent of a dollar store) when I was going on a cruise and used them to take this photo of the moon by holding one eyepiece in front of my camera.
Whilst rather blurry, we are now beginning to see some distinction to the surface with clear patches of light and dark. Not bad for a pair of £1 binoculars and my standard camera lens.
So far, we’ve only looked at our nearest neighbor, but what about some of those a little farther away? The stars are both very easy to photograph and very hard. They are easy enough to take because there are so many of them; point your camera to the sky, leave it on a long exposure and voilà, instant star photo. What makes it trickier is that the stars are naturally faint and tend to disappear at the first hint of street lighting, or the glow of a nearby city, a problem for many given the ubiquity of light pollution worldwide. This photo was taken from my bedroom window when I lived close to the large city of Leeds and it’s easy to see the effect the city’s glow had on the night sky (the streaks down the right hand side are the reflection of my curtains, not some strange paranormal phenomena).
In order to take good stellar photos, you need to be somewhere dark, with little light pollution. Some of you may be lucky enough to have this scenario in your backyard but for me, it required an hour’s drive to the Peak District national park in the dead of night. You can instantly see the difference in the sky. This photo was taken by simply setting the camera to a thirty second exposure and lying it on the roof of my friend’s car. A remote trigger – available cheaply on eBay – helps here as it allows you to take the photo without having to touch the camera, risking it moving under the pressure. Most DSLR camera will work with remote triggers.
At this point I feel it is worth mentioning safety. The very nature of astrophotography means shooting at night and whilst taking pictures from a bedroom window is safe enough, driving to the middle of nowhere late at night is decidedly less so. If you decide to take your own field trip, be sure to have someone with you, emergency supplies in the car and to keep safe. My friend and I shot from a lay-by on a main road that is well-traveled even late at night and we had people who knew where we were at all times and were expecting calls at set times. Remember that no photograph is worth taking chances for.
Back at home, the photos I have shown you so far have all been taken with a digital SLR camera (a Canon 300D with standard lens to be precise) which isn’t the most basic camera out there. Taking photographs of anything in the sky with only a small camera will always be tricky, but you can get some results. I have been playing with my telescope, a refractor with 360mm focal length, over the past few weeks and took this picture by simply placing my iPhone’s camera lens at the eyepiece once I had lined up the image in the scope.
Finally, the best results I have had so far have come from using the same technique above but using the SLR camera instead of the iPhone. This last photograph was taken last Sunday whilst sat comfortably in my living room, shooting through the patio doors.
Personally, I am incredibly proud of this photograph; it has inspired me to keep trying to get better and better shots, with my new aim being to try to photograph a planet.
If you have been inspired to try your hand at some astrophotography, the internet is packed full of resources and a quick search on Flickr will bring up thousands of amateur photos taken in back yards the world over. If you own a smart phone, I recommend getting yourself a stargazing app such as the wonderful Star Walk which will help you quickly find what you’re looking for and identify the objects you can see in the skies. However, remember that all you need is a camera and some patience to take photos worth sharing. I look forward to seeing your results.