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Starting Astrophotography - Part 3 Focusing at Night

Welcome back everyone! We hope you've been enjoying this mini-series. It's been fun to create and put together for you. If you're just joining us, make sure to check out part 1 and part 2 of our mini-series first. We've also attached another helpful cheat sheet about focusing at night at the end of this post.

So let's jump right in!

To recap, we've got our basic equipment, a tripod, camera, and lens. We have our settings and white balance set. Our shutter speed (on our Canon T6i) is set to about 15 seconds; white balance is around 3700-4000 Kelvin, or sunny white balance if the moon is visible. Lastly, we need to set the focus for our shot. Now there are two scenarios you will run into when doing this.

The Scenarios

In the first scenario, you have a mountain range in mind that has a prominent peak in the middle, and you would like to photograph the Milky Way coming up from behind it. How do you focus on something so far away like that? The second situation is similar, except maybe there is a windmill, old car, or a barn that you want to silhouette against the Milky Way.

First Scenario

Let's take a look at the first scenario. By using our planning apps, we know where the Milky Way will appear. At about midnight, it should move into position over our mountain range. We first need to locate a bright star or a planet to find the focus. If Jupiter comes up and you can see it, that's great! Jupiter is very, very bright and easy to find in the sky, but often it might not rise until later, or there might be something blocking it (like trees). Luckily, any star in the sky will work. Sometimes the bright star we spot is in a different direction than our composition, but that's okay. With your camera on a tripod, turn it (your camera) towards your star. You also want to turn on "Live View" and center that star in the middle of the LCD screen. Next, we want to zoom in on the star on the back of our screen a few times by tapping the "+" symbol button about 3 times. At this point, you'll need to turn off autofocus. We'll be doing the next steps manually. Use the focus ring to bring your star into focus. As you experiment and rotate the focus ring, the star becomes very fuzzy like a tennis ball or sharp like a dot. We want our star to be nice and sharp.

After that, we'll move our camera back into position for our composition. Once it's set up, take a test shot and zoom in on your stars to ensure they're nice pinpoint dots. If you zoom in and your stars look stretched or long, this means that your shutter speed is too slow. For example, if your Canon Rebel is set to 15 seconds, try using 13 seconds and see what results you get. After checking for sharpness, you're good to go!

Second Scenario

In the second scenario, we've got an old barn about 50 yds in front of us that has some cool structures, like a weather vane. We want it to be tack sharp silhouetted against the Milky Way. There are a couple of different ways we can do this.

First, you can go out during the day to find your composition and mark where your tripod would stand with tape. Then you can focus on the barn and make sure everything looks nice and sharp. After you dial in your settings secure it with a piece of tape. You can leave your camera and tripod there and return when it's dark to take the shot. Since nothing has been moved, all your settings will remain the same.

Another option if it's already dark is to have a buddy with you that can take a bright flashlight and shine it on the subject you want to focus on. With this scenario, autofocus will probably work for you if you can find a spot with enough contrast to focus on.

So that's a wrap on our series! Even if you don't have plans to go out tonight, you can still practice pulling focus on the stars from your back porch. The more experience you get with setting up your tripod, camera, lens, and other settings, the more confident you will become.

We hope you found this series helpful as you get started with capturing the night sky. Make sure to share your images with us so we can cheer you on. As always, if you have any questions or need help drop a comment below or give us a call. We look forward to seeing you again very soon!

Don't forget to download our quick reference sheet for focusing at night!

Getting Started Astrophotography_v3
Download PDF • 995KB


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