First Time Astrophotography: Things I Wish I'd Known

For whatever reason, after running around Memphis trying to get cool pictures and finding that concrete doesn’t do it for me all the time, I found myself looking into other subject material. One and a half youtube rabbit holes later, I discovered astrophotography. First thought: holy crap that is amazing. Second thought: holy crap I bet that’s expensive. Now I’m determined, and upon my first escape from the 100 mile bright zone that is the greater Memphis area, I set out to snag some dank shots of planets and stars and whatever else that hangs out in the sky at night.

Kit lens in hand, I set out with Sam to find a good flat spot for some star gazing and found one in the middle of nowhere, and by that I mean my hometown in East Tennessee. Cool cool cool. Tripod up, apertures open, exposure long, SHOW ME THE MONEY. Well, here’s the thing about kit lenses, at least the Canon 18-55. While it CAN manual focus, it doesn’t have a set dial to say “I want to focus on infinity”. First picture: kinda trash. What’s going on? Okay, focus. There’s a blinking cell phone tower some distance away. Nice. Focus point. You’d be surprised how difficult it is to focus an image when it’s pitch black. I’m talking one shade below that artificial material that they made Facebook videos about. It’s DARK. Real dark.

Okay. Focused on the cell phone tower light. Nice. TO THE TRIPOD. Set up, check the star app to make sure that that big honkin’ star cloud is somewhere in frame. Boom. Got it. Hello Sagittarius star cloud. Take a couple shots, change the aperture a time or two, fool with the ISO, try a bulb mode shot, okay. We’ve got pics people. Moving around, getting new shots, new frames. Let’s light paint this bush. Okay cool. Let’s paint this grass. Nice, got it. Sit my tripod on a hay bale. Solid, good stuff everyone. Over the course of a couple hours and several lens-foggings later, the moon is out in full force and all visibility of that sweet, sweet star cloud is “gone”.

Let’s revisit those initial thoughts. First: holy crap it was amazing. That part I got right. Second: the kit lens actually worked pretty well and took -okay- shots. They weren’t stellar by any means. I found out that these pictures in post looked WAY different than on camera. That’s good and bad. I found that I was out of focus in quite a few shots. This was exacerbated by having to clean the lens every ten minutes due to fog, which inherently moved the focus ring and necessitated refocusing. Some pictures looked great, others didn’t. It happens. Point being, the kit lens was functional. Was it the best? No. Was it optimal? No. Did I have to spend $400 on the Rokinon 14 mm to get cool shots? No. Do I want one now and am I probably going to purchase one with my Amazon cash back points? Heck yes. The point here is that it’s not ENTIRELY necessary to buy a lens just to take awesome pics, although it does help. It’s even possible to do astrophotography with a nifty fifty. I found that I focused more on wishing I had a better lens and less on planning the best shots with what I had (i.e. bringing my own lens cloth, thanks Sam).

It’s kind of a good rule that wishing that you had better equipment doesn’t take better shots, but mastering the equipment you have probably does. So, I wish I’d have done due diligence in preparing to take dank shots. Lesson learned. Having said that, still probably going to get the Rokinon 14.

Do you ever look at the moon and think “Man, that thing is bright tonight."? Well, try taking a picture of a star cloud with that giant white spotlight ruining everything. It’s honestly infuriating and completely disregarding the global consequences, I wish it would just go away. Also, there’s a such thing as a “moonrise”. So, given these circumstances, taking dank shots turned into a race against the clock (moon) because once that bad boy is up, you can’t see squat. A quick check into the moon cycle calendar would have mitigated this disaster. Live and learn.

Lastly, I wish I wouldn’t have underestimated composition in astrophotography. Don’t get me wrong, I got some shots I’m happy with. Having said that, I could have got some that were much better. We used what we had readily available aka an empty field down the road, but if I could have snagged a pic from a bridge over a river, it would have been nice too. It’s hard to find places in your back yard to take a sweet pic, especially if you live in a city. So it’s worth putting in the time to plan a place to snag that perfect shot.

Final thoughts: All of the things I wish I’d known involve adequate planning. Planning a shot is important anyway, but is especially important when the things you’re taking pictures of are orbiting around a giant star and can be obscured by terrible light pollution and the tide bringer. So, key points:

  • Know your gear and prepare accordingly (and maybe buy the Rokinon or another sweet ultrawide lens).

  • Plan for the moon and whatever constellation you really want to snag a picture of.

  • Expect to have to drive if you live in a city. For example, the nearest dark zone to my current location in Memphis is about an hour and a half away. Yikes.

  • Trial and error. It’s an amazing experience to see these things whether the pictures turn out great or not.