Capturing the cosmos: A beginner’s guide to astrophotography

If you have ever sat beneath a night sky full of glistening stars with the glowing Milky Way stretching across the heavens, perhaps you have wanted to save that wonderful image and take it home with you to show your friends.

Unfortunately, capturing the cosmos is not necessarily as simple as pulling out your phone camera and pressing a button. However, even novices can capture brilliant star photos when they have the proper gear and knowledge. Here is your basic beginner’s guide to astrophotography.


Find A dark sky

Before you can snap the stars, you need to be able to see them. Light pollution from cities, cars and even personal gear can all drown out the stars so it is important to get far away from civilization and to keep personal light production at a minimum when taking photos of the stars.

Utah has nine designated Dark Sky Parks, areas characterized as having low light pollution and exemplary night skies, such as Cedar Breaks National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park. 

These destinations are excellent for taking star photos, but anywhere isolated will work. The moon will also obscure the stars, so make sure to pick a night as close to a new moon as possible and with minimal cloud cover.


Prepare the right gear and settings

Your typical phone or point-and-shoot camera will not be ideal in capturing a starry sky. For astrophotography, you will want a manual-capable camera with the ability to shoot low-light shots with extended shutter speeds. 

High-end DSLRs work wonders but cheaper DSLRs will suffice for those on a budget. A tripod will be needed to mount and keep the camera still during shooting. Technology such as star-trackers will also improve the quality of your shots but are not necessary.

The key to imaging the stars is shutter speed. You will want to set your camera to a shutter speed of at least 15 seconds to allow for time to capture enough light to see the stars in the photo. Too much exposure will wash-out the photo while too little will render the image too dim. 

Focal distance should be set to infinity, with your aperture as wide as possible, indicated by a low f-stop. In addition to this, your camera’s ISO will need to be raised to compensate for the darkness of the image, but be careful not to raise this too much as to avoid an unnecessarily grainy image.


Take the picture!

Astrophotography is a game of trial and error. With your camera mounted on a tripod, you will need to take several shots to frame the scene and land on the perfect settings. 

It is also important not to touch the camera while the shutter is open, as this can cause blur in the final image. Instead, consider using a Bluetooth remote or employ the use of your camera’s timer. 

Adding an element in the image foreground, such as a tree or geographical formation, can add depth and visual interest to your photo. An object such as a tree can be captured alongside the stars by throwing a quick burst of illumination at it from a headlamp or other source while the shutter is open.

Be sure to take many shots throughout the night with many different angles, elements and lighting. This will give you many options to choose from during editing.


Edit your photos

While great photos can come purely from the camera and a knowledgeable photographer, most bring out their photos in post-editing. 

Editing can be as basic as raising exposure and saturation to bring out the stars, which can be done on software as elementary as a smartphone, but the real magic happens through programs such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom.

Enjoy the final product

Whether you decide to post your images on social media, share them with friends and family or simply keep them to yourself, you have now captured a spectacular moment and produced an image that you can be proud of. Take time to admire and critique your work and you are on your way to becoming a true astrophotographer.  

Article by: Jared Clawson

Photos by: Jared Clawson and Skyler Jones