We may be going through a pandemic, but that doesn't mean you can't experience nature. This is actually a great time to do so, where you're able to socially distance more there than being in a city center. During this pandemic it brought me to taking the opportunity to do more among nature and landscape artwork and I thought I'd share some tips for those seeking to photograph within astro-photography. Here are 5 essentials that I think every photographer should consider for such work.
Sony α7S III + ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21mm, ISO 5000, f/2.8, 6 secs - Danese, WV.
1. Quality Lenses + Fast Aperture Ones!
No matter what you're photographing you should always want the best optics you can possibly obtain. It's incredibly essential for astrophotography, as higher quality optics perform better at higher ISO ranges, which will be utilized in astrophotography.
Quality optics have better resolving power, allowing them to better maintain fine detail in an image at higher ISO's and take full advantage of the camera sensor. For comparison, a kit lens vs a ZEISS lens at ISO 2,500 would look significantly different. You're going to have better control of noise from the ZEISS lens and also improved detail from edge-to-edge.
I've used a variety of Sony and ZEISS lenses over the years and currently use ZEISS Loxia lenses for the majority of my astro images. They're manual lenses, which have an advantage of being fully mechanical lenses. Unlike the other lenses for Sony E-Mount, that utilize a focus-by-wire system and operating electronically in manual mode, this gives you precise manual focus control on your lens. You'd want to manually for your astro work and I find these lenses to be the best native lenses for that. Should you choose to not go the ZEISS route for your lenses I'd highly recommend good quality mechanical focusing lenses. Great optics and mechanical focusing are the two things I find the most valuable.
Utilizing a fast aperture lens can be the difference between a basic astro image, to one that really makes the stars pop further. Wider aperture lenses will offer brighter results and allow for additional benefits in different situations. Many enjoy f/1.4 wide angle primes for these, such as Sony's 1.4/24mm GM lens. That's an incredible lens for such work! The ZEISS Batis 2/25mm lens that I also own is a stop slower and works great too, but again, you are going to have better results with wider aperture lenses. Grant it, I mostly use my ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21mm, which is far slower than both, but because it's a fully mechanical lens is the reason why I prefer to utilize that over my faster Batis 25mm.
Sony α7R III + ZEISS Loxia 2/50mm, ISO 4000, f/2, 15 secs - Shiprock, NM.
2. Good Low Light Camera Body
Most cameras in this era are very good cameras in all aspects, but there are some that have their strengths in specific areas over others. A camera with good low light is a very important thing for astro-photography, as you're going to be photographing with higher ISO's. A camera like my Sony a7S III for instance is one of the best cameras in low light. It has a maximum of 409,600 ISO, but with 12MP. Many may not prefer the lower MP count, but it's not as bad as people may think of it and serves as a reason this camera excels in it's low light capability. With less pixels that mean that each pixel across the sensor plane is larger, which improves its low light capability.
In having higher ISO utilization you must make sure to take point one with importance! Having great glass allows for your image quality at these higher ISO's to come off with more detail. Your camera will only be as good as the glass you have attached to it and in this case it matters a lot on the capability of both the lens and camera together, for optimal results.
Sony α7R III + ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21mm, ISO 2500, f/2.8, 13 secs - Shiprock, NM.
3. Sturdy Tripod
Having a good tripod is a MUST! This doesn’t mean purchasing a $500 tripod, as you can find great quality ones for less than half that price in aluminum or a carbon fiber for a few dollars more, which I especially love for their lighter weight when traveling.
I use a variety of SIRUI Tripods (Click Here for my current tripods I'm using). Their tripods are very lightweight, but sturdy. I've used their brand for over 3 years now and have traveled across the world with them and they're all still going strong.
TIP: Don’t forget when you’re using a tripod to turn off your Image Stabilization. You might not realize it but with your camera on a tripod it’s still trying to correct motion even if there isn’t any, unless you’re on a moving platform or pier and in that case having it enabled can improve your chances for a much sharper image.
Sony α7S III + ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21mm, ISO 4000, f/2.8, 10 secs - Danese, WV.
Having a remote trigger whether attached to the camera or using an app is important to have, as you don't want to slightly shift your camera for each frame that you capture.
I use a little $20 remote I found off of Amazon that attaches to my camera and with my camera in BULB mode (you must be in manual for this option to show. It does not display in the priority shooting modes) I can set my camera for the amount of time I want my exposure to be. The JJC Remote has been my favorite, because it's one of a very small few (if not the only one) that actually has an on/off switch. Who would have known that an on/off switch would be a novel idea for a remote! Most others out there do not have this and you'd have to remove the batteries when it's not in use.
Some may prefer using a wireless remote trigger and they can work too, but the downfall is that they don't have a display for you to see the length of time for your exposure or have the ability to dial in the time you want to set. There's no in camera view for this either, so you're stuck to using your watch or phone to keep track of time. It's not really a convenient method and certainly not one I'd advise.
If you don't want to spend the money then you can set the in camera timer, with 2 seconds, 5 seconds or whatever options your camera has available that you'd like to utilize. This works very well, if you're not utilizing a shutter speed longer than 30 seconds (which most may not for just the basic astro work). If you're doing some more extensive creative work then the remote will be needed.
Sony α7R III + ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21mm, ISO 3200, f/2.8, 10 secs - Abiquiu, NM.
5. Photo Pills App
This is one of the best apps you could EVER own for astro-photography! I was gifted this app by Photo Pills, to try out and it's been the only app I use for a year now! It's available for both Android and iOS.
From being able to calculate your exposure, planning out your excursions and finding out where the sun will set, to even having a night AR more that shows you where the Milky Way is going to be are just some of the amazing things you can do in this app. It is a paid app, but if I wasn't given this app and had to buy it I would certainly buy it! If you're really serious about this kind of work then you'd want to have this app 100% of the time.
During my 2020 road trip across America, my friend David Glenn and I utilized this for our entire 30 day trip. It allowed us to maximize our time and giving us more time to photograph and less time researching where the best spot was for a particular composition - either online or by getting to a location and determining while we're there. If you like that sort of thing, then hey continue to use it, but this app simply allows us more time to be placed elsewhere.
Sony α9 + ZEISS Vario-Tessar T* 4/16-35mm, ISO 2500, f/4, 20 secs - Santa Barbara, CA.
Hopefully these things help you in capturing your astro images. I’d love to see your results, so be sure to share them with me on Instagram.