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Starting Astrophotography? Part 2, Camera Settings

Three-part mini-series with Harold Klein

Welcome back to our next installment of our 3 part mini-series, Getting Started with Astrophotography, taught by yours truly, Harold Klein. In our first lesson, Harold reviewed the gear and apps helpful in capturing the night sky. If you need to, here is a link to re-visit the original post. As a bonus, we've included a quick cheat sheet that covers what we've learned so far at the end of this post. You can download and print it off to use while you're out in the field, capturing the night sky.

Today we're going to cover the primary settings you'll want to have dialed in for a decent exposure. So let's dive in!

1. Manual Mode.

You want to make sure you are shooting in manual, so you have total control over your aperture. Aperture and auto mode will NOT work for this setting. It must be manual! Once you are in manual mode, open your aperture as wide as possible. For example, if you have an 18-55mm f/3.5 - f/5.6 kit lens, you'll want to open it to f/3.5. The goal is to have your lens at the widest aperture possible.

2 . Shutter Speed

There tends to be a little bit of confusion when it comes to shutter speed. Back in the day, there was something called the 500 Rule. However, that is completely obsolete now, and we won't go into it beyond that. Thanks to our helpful phone apps, we can use Photo Pills to input the type of camera and lens we're using. In return, Photo Pills will consider the pixels' size and pitch and recommend the best shutter speed to use without streaking the stars. So if you input in the app that you're using a Canon Rebel T6 with an 18-55mm kit lens, it may recommend something around 18.97 seconds. You won't have that value in your camera, so you need to round the value down. Going along with our T6 example, 18.97 and 18 seconds is not an option, so the next rounded-down value available is 15. *Always round down.

3. ISO

Alrighty, when it comes to ISO values and the night sky, these numbers can feel uncomfortable for many people, especially if you're used to shooting during the day. Harold likes to start with an ISO of 6400, so the image pops off the back of the camera screen. This allows him to see what the horizon looks like, if the composition is straight, if the Milky Way is in the frame how you want, etc.

4. White Balance

When selecting your white balance, you must first assess what the moon is doing. If it is a moonless night ( 4 days before and after a new moon), you will want to use a warmer white balance temperature on the Kelvin scale. When the moon is visible, set your white balance to "sunny" since what we see is the sunlight reflecting off the moon. Harold's personal preference is around 3850k, but you might prefer a different setting. Usually, anything between 3700-4000k will result in a lovely deep blue/ blackish sky.

So to recap,

  • Make sure you have your camera in manual mode.

  • Use the PhotoPills app to help calculate your shutter speed.

  • Set your ISO to 6400

  • Choose your white balance setting based on the visibility of the moon

Now that we have those settings squared away, in our next installment, we will be going over how to focus your camera at night when you can't see anything at all!

Getting Started Astrophotography
Download PDF • 706KB

Thanks for joining us! As promised, here is the quick reference sheet you can download, print, and share. If you have questions, drop them in the comments below or call us at either of our stores.

See you next Wednesday!