Part 1: Perfect Purchase
Welcome to the wonderful world of DSLR astrophotography. No other hobby could be as captivating. Ok, perhaps that is a bit presumptuous and biased to say! But truly what could compare to being able to take your own still frame of the heavens in all its beautiful glory? And with the DSLR camera, astrophotography has never been more accessible, cost effective and easy.
With so many DSLRs – and good ones too – on the market, it can be a little difficult as a novice to know which one to purchase. Choosing the right camera for you is a matter of being informed. There are some very competitive options out there, but it is still an investment worth taking your time to make.
The first part of this comprehensive guide to DSLR astrophotography will help you in making an informed buyer’s decision. It serves to show you the different features you should consider when browsing the market for your perfect choice.
Taking it a step further, the second part consists of a beginner’s guide to DSLR astrophotography: helping you to understand your camera’s basic settings, taking a brief look at what a simple set-up for astrophotography may look like, and providing some tips on composition and technique.
Lastly, the guide ends with reviews on recommended cameras and lenses.
Recommended Astrophotography DSLRs
|Canon EOS 80D||$$||4.9/5|
|Pentax K – 1||$$$||4.9/5|
|Canon EOS 5D Mark IV||$$$$||4.3/5|
DSLR Key Features
Here’s the truth: if you are new to astrophotography – indeed, to photography of any kind – you will really not need anything more than the most basic of DSLR set-ups. Even a lower end camera of a trusted brand will do. There is nothing wrong with this! It will teach you all you need to know about your camera, and that means taking time to play around with your new hobby in photography and familiarize yourself with your specific camera. You will have the chance to explore with different settings and modes and hone your skill and creativity. And all this without having spent an arm and a leg!
By the time you are ready for a new camera, you will know what kind of features you appreciate and which you can do without.
Still, you do not want to go into buying your first DSLR completely blind. Here are some basic features to consider.
- Sensor Size
Your DSLRs sensor is the heart of the camera. It is what records the images you are seeing to memory. A bigger sensor is always better, especially for astrophotography, because it means that your camera will be able to capture more light. There is no downfall to having a bigger sized sensor other than that you will pay a little more for it.
A larger sensor means that the quality of the pictures is magnificent, because of all the information it can capture. There will be clarity and sharpness to your photos even under high magnification.
DSLRs with a maximum sensor size (36 x 24 mm) are known as ‘full frames’, and cameras with smaller sensors than the full frame measurement are known as ‘crop frames’.
Smaller sensors aren’t necessarily a deal breaker, but for astrophotography it is recommended that you get as close to full frame as you can for your budget.
How many megapixels your camera is will reveal a lot about what the resolution of the photographs will be.
Pixels are small squares of information that, when put together, make up your photograph. A megapixel is equal to a million of these pixels. The more pixels of information, the higher the resolution and quality your photograph will be.
Camera manufactures love to push megapixels as an important selling point, and it definitely is – but it is oversold! All good brand DSLRs, even the cheapest ones, will always have sufficient megapixels for taking high quality photographs. Sensor size is infinitely more important than the number of megapixels of the camera.
Most standard DSLRs are packaged with what is known as a ‘kit lens’: a zoom lens of approximately 18 – 55 mm. It is more than likely that you will end up buying a different lens for astrophotography if your purchase comes with one of these stock lenses. They are by no means terrible, but they are not usually made with the best quality glass as the more expensive lenses are.
Rather than looking for packages where the camera comes with a high quality lens simply buy the DSLR body and the lens as separate purchase.
- LCD Screen
Choose a DSLR with a bright view screen – it is really going to help under dark conditions! Not all cameras have LCD views screen and it is not crucial by any means but is advantageous for reviewing your photos.
Another feature to consider is a cross tilt or vari-angle LCD; essentially one that rotates. It is incredibly convenient for shooting at different angles.
- Image Stabilization
Cameras, especially good ones, are pretty sensitive instruments. Even if you have the steadiest hands in the west, the slightest of moments could potentially show up as blur on your images. To negate this, there are DSLR that come with built-in technology that counteracts this.
There are different types to consider.
Optical stabilization is the more common image stabilization method. Within the camera there are gyroscopes which detect shaking movements and work to steady the path of the image. The gyroscopes are located in the lens.
Sensor stabilization works on a similar method with gyroscopes; though instead of being located in the lens, they are situated in the camera body. When shake is detected, the image sensor is moved to counteract the movement.
A third type of stabilization is digital and is totally different from the other two methods, which correct camera shake while you are taking a photo. Instead, this method tries to correct the image by changing camera settings after the image has been taken.
I most recommend finding a DSLR that uses gyroscopes for image stabilization. After all, steadiness is always best when it comes to matters of the sky!
- Internal Cleaner
A build-up of dust can actually damage your camera. Changing lenses, which you may often do as you grow in your hobby, can also let a lot of dust in. Maintaining your camera by cleaning it manually from time to time is important, but a very overlooked yet useful feature many DSLR have is an internal sensor cleaner.
Don’t run low on space! Get a DSLR with great storage capacity and also invest in a good memory card of at least 64 gigabytes.
- Battery Life
You do not want to ever miss out on the perfect shot because your batteries are shot! So the battery life of your camera is a great consideration. You should at the very least be able to take a minimum of 1000 shots before the batteries need changing or charging.
Different cameras come with different batteries. The most expensive batteries aren’t necessarily the ones with the longest life. Alkaline batteries tend to drain a little faster. No matter which batteries your camera come with, always make sure to have spares, and have them on you whenever you are out with your camera.
There are many other features you can look into. Many other features will certainly be sold to you, but these cover the essentials. Lastly, consider usability. Choose a camera that is comfortable for you to hold and handle, and one with a streamlined design (not plastered in buttons you will hardly ever use).
Also, be realistic and responsible with your budget. It is easy to be roped into buying a very expensive camera when a much cheaper one will do the trick and do it well. There are many competitively priced cameras that offer everything you could possibly need to get started with astrophotography.
See the camera reviews in the last section of this guide to get a feel for the best cameras for DSLR astrophotography on the market.
Part 2: How to Do Astrophotography with A DSLR
Understanding Your DSLR – Easy Exposure
As you familiarize yourself with your DSLR, you will develop an intuition about the best camera settings for astrophotography.
For now, one of the most effective ways to get started and learn more about your camera and taking better photographs is to understand the basics of exposure.
Put simply, exposure is the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor, and so logically means how bright your images will be. There are three components to consider that can change exposure: aperture, shutter speed and ISO – known as the exposure triangle.
Your DSLR’s aperture is the hole in your lens through which light travels to reach the sensor.
A larger aperture will therefore naturally allow more light through and produce brighter, better quality photographs. Aperture doesn’t only affect the brightness of your photographs though. It also affects the depth of field: the focus of your images.
A narrow/shallow depth of field means that only the foreground of your photograph is sharp or in focus, while a wide/deep depth of field means that both foreground and background are in focus.
The relationship between aperture and depth of field is an inverse one: a small aperture gives a wider depth of field whereas a larger aperture results in a narrower depth of field.
Instead of being described as ‘large’ or ‘small’, aperture can accurately be expressed in ‘f-numbers’ or ‘f-stops’. This number will be displayed on your camera, most likely on the LCD screen or viewfinder.
Again, the relationship is an inverse one. Small f-numbers equate to large apertures, while higher f-numbers equate to smaller apertures. So an f-stop number of f/2 equals to greater aperture than f/8.
You want to be seeing a smaller number, especially in astrophotography. Generally, anything of f/4 and smaller is a good bet.
To adjust aperture, you will need to take your camera out of Auto Mode, and set it to Manual (M) or Aperture Priority (A or Av).
Now, obviously a large aperture will increase exposure, but will also limit depth of field. One way around this is to consider the other key component to exposure: shutter speed.
- Shutter Speed
Sutter speed is the length of time your camera’s shutter remains open, allowing light to pass to the sensor. Essentially, it is how long your camera spends taking a photograph. The shutter is like a curtain over the sensor. If it is not open, the sensor will not receive or record incoming light.
The longer the shutter is open for, the more light is received and the brighter your picture will be.
Additionally, shutter speed also has a dramatic effect on your photos. A slow shutter speed, when the shutter is open for longer, will cause blur in your photograph if the subject is moving. Photographers often use this to portray a sense of motion or direction. The opposite effect is created when you use a fast or short shutter speed: you can freeze action; like a still frame of a bird in flight or a rapidly flowing waterfall.
In DSLR astrophotography, long shutter speeds are typically used because more light is gathered.
Shutter speed is measured in seconds and fractions of seconds. Really high-end cameras can handle fast shutter speeds of 1/8000th of a second and faster, where the longest exposure is 30 seconds.
The shutter speed is selected for you in Auto Mode. Change to Manual or Shutter Priority to select the speed yourself. You can find your shutter speed on the LCD or viewfinder. Take note, fractions of a second will not be written in fractions, so a shutter speed of 1/200th will be displayed as 200. Anything of a second or longer is written with quotations following the number, so a shutter speed of 20 seconds would be written as 20’’.
Technically, ISO is not part of exposure. This is because unlike aperture of shutter speed, ISO does not affect the amount of light your sensor receives. ISO may simply be described as a camera setting that can enhance the brightness of your photograph after it has already been taken.
There may be times when your photos come out darker than desired despite your aperture or shutter speed settings, and then ISO can be really helpful in brightening your photographs. However, there is a trade-off: noise.
A photograph whose quality is maintained when magnifying it shows low noise. But when you magnify a photograph and it starts looking grainy and blotchy, that shows high noise. Raising ISO to brighten your photograph also unfortunately raises noise.
There are different ranges of ISO values, typically 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200 and onwards. Each time ISO is doubled, brightness is doubled too.
You want your camera’s base ISO number, which is the lowest native ISO, to be low because quality is still maintained. Try choosing the lowest possible ISO when enhancing your brightness to counteract noise.
Some cameras have an ISO button, but if not you will have to enter one of the other Priority modes, or Manual, to choose your ISO value.
Super Basic Astrophotography Camera Settings
Your location is going to be a very important factor depending on what you want to photograph. You can take excellent pictures of the Moon right in your own backyard. ‘Starscapes’, those lovely photographs of night sky over scenic landscapes, can also be done from the suburbs, as can photographs of constellations.
Dark skies far away from the city’s lights and pollution are best for any and all kinds of astrophotography. But for Milky Way and deep sky (galaxies/ clusters) photography, dark skies become essential.
Your camera settings will also vary depending on what you want to photograph. Here is a look at some recommended and very basic astrophotography camera settings for you to try. Please note that these settings are not standard though, because your specific camera, lens and conditions will vary the settings.
- Set your camera to Manual, as Auto Mode will likely overexpose the image.
- For the full moon you can try these settings: f/8, 1/640, ISO 200
- For the half-moon try these settings: f/8, 1/500, ISO 400
Wide Field Starscapes
- You may struggle to focus on the stars your first couple of times trying out starscapes. If you are finding this difficult, you could try auto-focusing on one of the brighter stars before switching over to manual focus. If this does not work either, try focusing in live view mode.
- Try playing with settings that include testing your maximum aperture and then lowering it accordingly, as well as a shutter speed of 30 seconds, and ISO 1600.
- Have a really dark sky before going any further!
- Suggested settings: f/4, 30 seconds, ISO 1600.
So far, despite keeping things really simple and straightforward, this guide has been rather technical. We have taken a look at the features you should consider when looking to purchase a DSLR camera and explored some of your DSLR’s settings.
But if that was all any type of photography boiled down to there would not be any artistic element to it.
Essentially, the quality of a photograph is not only determined by how well you understand your camera’s settings or how fancy and expensive your camera is, but largely depends on creativity and expressing oneself through this art as well.
Ironically enough though, there is a guideline to being more creative and expressive if you are not quite sure how! These simple hacks to taking more beautiful photographs are so easy to follow and will make a noticeable difference.
The subject of your photograph will stand out, even if it is not dead centre of your image. The heavens are also rich with beautiful gems that most likely fill the same field of view as your main subject, so tilting off axis a little can enrich your photograph. Not only will you be creating interesting composition, but be capturing other wonderful objects in the region too.
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is one of the golden techniques of more creative composition. Divide your image up into 9 sections by imagining two lines running vertically, and another two lines running horizontally. The cross sections of these lines are where you should consider placing the points of interest that you are photographing.
Studies have shown that these sections are where our eyes fall most naturally, making this extra effective.
Playing with Space
Balancing your photograph in an interesting and natural way can be quite fun to try. On the one hand, you want to play with space: try out the rule of thirds and have your subject off centre. On the other hand, you also want to play with the space around your subject in a natural way.
Having everything of interest in the photo all bundled up in one section can make one side of the photo seem heavy, and make the overall feel unbalanced. Including emptier regions around the stars or galaxies you want to photograph could have an interesting effect.
Let your photograph mean something to you! Astrophotography may seem very abstract, but when you let your creativity free there are many ways you can express feeling through your photographs.
Do not be discouraged by your imperfect, blurry shots either. These shots may not technically be the best, but could be so unique and captivating that they end up being some of your favourites.
Simple Set – Up
A DSLR set up for astrophotography does not have to be anything fancy. There are some enthusiasts you will go all out with accessories and a five-star set-up, especially when deep sky astrophotography is the main goal. If deep sky DSLR photography is your ultimate goal, then do chip away at building up the equipment and accessories you will need, including astrophotography filters for your DSLR, astrophotography software and even a telescope!
But for now as a beginner, all you really require to get started is your camera and a simple, sturdy tripod.
Here is a quick look at some of the extras that will make life easier for you:
- Tripod: A tripod isn’t really an extra so much as it is a necessity in astrophotography. The majority of the photographs you will be taking are long exposure ones, and no one is capable of holding their camera dead-steady for even a couple of seconds. Eliminate the likelihood of ruining your photographs with horrible blur by setting up your DSLR on a nice, sturdy tripod.
- A Comfortable Chair: Like any type of art, a lot of patience is required in astrophotography. You could find yourself simply waiting for the inspiration to strike, but more than likely you will be anticipating a certain line up of the stars, for the right angles, or for a constellation to finally rise. Make sure you are comfortable. Bring snacks and warm clothes too!
- Red Flashlight: This is so that you are not completely in the dark while working. Your pupils actually adjust to darkness by becoming bigger to take in more light (they become dark adapted). A normal flashlight will ruin this, whereas a red flashlight will not.
- An Anti-fog Cloth: This will prevent condensation and your lens fogging up under certain atmospheric conditions.
- Binoculars: Sometimes all you need to do is browse some lovely clusters with your binoculars before you commit to taking a photograph. It’s also a great pastime for when you are waiting patiently for a specific shot.
- Star Maps: A star guide can be useful if you are a novice to the night sky, and aren’t sure of some of the more hidden gems you could be capturing.
Part 3: Reviews
Best Cameras for Astrophotography
Here is a brief overview of some astrophotography cameras that users typically recommend.
* Note: Some of these models are older and therefore no longer in production. However, there are places online where you could still get them new. Even better, it is highly possible that you will be able to get them at a much lower price second hand and still in great condition.
Canon EOS 80D
The Canon EOS 80D is one of the most sought after and highly recommended crop sensors on the market. The 24.6 megapixel semi-professional camera is highly affordable and delivers great quality, even when matched up against full frame cameras with a higher price tag. The camera has some standout features including a viewfinder boasting almost 100% coverage of bright, clear views; a vari-angle LCD touchscreen, and built in Wi-Fi2. This is a great camera designed with quality and ease of use in mind.
Although the D 850 is on the higher end of the price scale and can be quite difficult to get your hands on, it is very much in demand. This isn’t at all surprising when you take a look at the DSLRs specs. Its 45.7 megapixel camera offers brilliant resolution and strong autofocus. The camera also has the lowest base ISO of any other full frame DSLR at 64 ISO. What makes the Nikon D 850 great for astrophotography is the superior autofocus that allows you to work well in low light environments. It is also user friendly with a touchscreen LCD which tilts, and the ability to easily transfer your pictures to your smartphone via Bluetooth.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
Focus all your images with the superior accuracy of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV; a technological dream of a DSLR that offers a full frame sensor for the highest quality photographs, an excellent 30.4 megapixel camera, and all the latest features. This includes built in Wi-Fi2 and GPS3. The clear view LCD monitor is bright and has a quality display and easy to navigate set-up menu. This camera is well suited to low light environments and offers great low noise performance and a streamlined design.
Pentax K – 1
If you are looking for a quality full frame DSLR that does not cost an arm and a leg then the Pentax K – 1 is exactly the camera for you. It is much lower priced than Canon and Nikon full frame DSLRs, and holds up well to their lower end cameras as well. The Pentax has excellent resolution at 36.4 megapixels, and is suited to outdoor photography with its weather resistant design. The usability of the camera is also good, including a cross tilt LCD display. A bonus is that you can get some excellent Pentax lenses second hand, for this K – 1 is compatible with older lenses. Users are generally very impressed with how much this camera exceeds their expectations.
Canon EOS 6D Mark II
One could think of the Canon EOS 6D Mark II as a ‘budget full frame DSLR’. Users definitely recommend this camera to others as a quality and affordable camera for beginners. The camera is 26.2 megapixels – more than enough for sharp resolution. It has a touchscreen LCD for live view operation and offers very good noise performance. It was also designed with convenient features that add to usability including built in Wi-Fi and GPS, as well as Bluetooth connectivity. This camera also performs very well in low light environments. A great buy for its price.
Canon EOS 70D
This 20.4 megapixel camera is ideal for beginner photographers because it offers good value at a great price. The image quality on this camera is excellent, even compared to new models. The viewfinder is a good size and it has an articulated touchscreen. It is a cropped frame DSLR, but still really good at 23 x 15mm. It does mean a little bit of noise in your photographs, but nevertheless, the Canon EOS 70D handles this well. The magnesium alloy body helps seal the camera against the weather, so it is perfect for outdoor shooting (just what an astrophotographer needs!).
The Nikon D810a is a full frame camera of excellent quality. Whereas this may easily be the best feature for many other cameras, the D810a has the added advantage of having a sensor filter that passes the wavelengths emitted by nebulas. So if you ever want to get into deep sky astrophotography with your DSLR, this is the camera for you. The camera’s bright live view screen is extremely helpful for focusing on dimmer celestial objects. It also boasts a 36 megapixel camera, great noise performance and good resolution.
The Nikon D7200 is competitively priced at the lower end of the spectrum, making it ideal for anyone on a tight budget still looking for a quality DSLR. A cropped frame DSLR of 24 megapixels, the noise is a little high, but this entry level camera is still capable of taking stunning shots of the night sky. Users are also very impressed with the long life capabilities and low light performance which are both essential to astrophotography. The Nikon holds its own by being very well priced compared to other cameras with similar specifications.
Canon EOS 6D
This is one of the more highly recommended cameras for DSLR astrophotography. The 6D comes in at a more ‘modest’ 20.2 megapixels, but noise performance is very good. A full frame camera, this DSLR was designed with the best features in mind, including a built-in sensor cleaner, fast shutter speeds, weather sealing protection and a good LCD screen.
Another favourite of astrophotographers, this compact full frame, 24.3 megapixel camera is worth the investment. It comes with some very convenient features such as built-in Wi-Fi, weather sealing and dust reduction. One of the pleasures this camera offers is the great usability, including a high resolution tilt-up LCD screen. It is a little bit more pricey, but a solid investment all in all.
A Look at Lenses
So far we have considered the features of the DSLR camera body only, but attaching the right lens to your camera is a game changer.
The two most important things you should be looking at when deciding on a quality lens are focal length and aperture size.
The focal length of a lens is the distance between where the image is focused (in the lens) to the sensor.
Focal length determines your field of view which is how much of a scene you are taking in. A long focal length will result in a narrow field of view; showing less of the scene but magnifying what is shown.
A normal focal length results in a field of view that is closest to that of human vision, while a short focal length – also called wide angle lenses – result in a larger field of view.
For lovely landscape photographs of the Milky Way, a short focal length (35 mm or less depending on your camera and whether or not it is a full frame) is the way to go, because they allow you to take in a larger frame of the Milky Way, and because you can use a longer shutter speed without creating star trails (motion blur from the Earth’s rotation).
Focal ratio is an important number to know too. This is the focal length of your lens divided by its aperture. A lens of 50 mm focal length with an aperture of 35mm would have a focal length of f/1.4. It’s important to know because small focal ratios mean that the aperture is large compared to the focal length. In turn, this means that less exposure is needed to gather a lot of light.
Some recommended lenses for astrophotography include:
- Canon EF 24 – 105mm f/4 L USM IS Zoom
- Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro
- Canon EF 100mm f/2 USM
- Canon EF 135mm f/2 L USM
- Canon EF 200mm f/2.8 L II USM
- Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM non-IS
- Canon EF 500mm f/4 L USM IS
- Nikkor AF 180mm f2.8 D ED-IF
- Nikon AF DC Nikkor 135mm f/2.0 D ED-IF
- Nikon AF-S 14 – 24mm f/2.8 G ED AF
Lights Out and Get About
This guide has introduced you to the basics, but there are practical ways you can decide on a DSLR and learn more about astrophotography.
Art and science famously bring people together. Attending local star parties is a really good way to meet others who share your passion for the night sky. Many of the regulars will be people who have already invested years of their time and money spent into furthering their interest in amateur astronomy and in astrophotography too.
They will be able to recommend the best telescopes and cameras and give you inside tips like nobody else. If you are lucky, some may even have their cameras with them, and allow you to use it to get a feel for the technology and hobby. In this case, please be very careful in handling their equipment: many DSLR and lenses cost tens of thousands and some are even irreplaceable.
Also consider attending photography conventions and exhibitions. Though the vast majority of attendees at these events won’t necessarily be experts in astrophotography, they will be experts and enthusiasts of photography at large – and will be able to teach you more about DSLR and photography techniques than anybody else.
Lastly, practise and practise some more! Enjoy owning your DSLR. Spend time going through your manual and reading through online forums. But also realize that you need to be putting all that you learn into actually taking pictures. Do not wait until there are the perfect conditions to take photographs, and don’t take this the wrong way now, do not limit yourself to the night sky.
Play around with action shots of wildlife, dramatic captures of life in the city, portraits of family and strangers, landscapes and abstracts. All of these photos will teach you something new about your DSLR’s functions and settings that you may not have learnt from doing astrophotography alone.
Steady focus and steady skies!
- Part 1: Perfect Purchase
- Part 2: How to Do Astrophotography with A DSLR
- Part 3: Reviews
- Lights Out and Get About