Shooting the Stars with a DSLR Camera


Have you ever pointed your camera at the night sky and opened the shutter, just to see what you’d get? A meteor streaking by? A full Moon? A constellation that seems like an old friend?
I love taking pictures of the heavens and often do so with my camera attached to a telescope. I’m innocent enough, however, to be amazed at what I can do with a just a simple DSLR camera. If you’re interested, here are 3 basic suggestions for taking great photos of the stars.
Equipment: Having a DSLR camera with interchangeable lens will make it possible for you to zoom in closer to your celestial subjects. Other essential equipment include a remote trigger and a solid tripod to reduce vibration as you take your pictures.
Photographic Technique: One of the most important things to consider is exposure time. Leaving the shutter open longer will bring in more light and allow you to get a more detailed image. How long should you expose? The glib answer is, for as long as it takes, but no longer. Leaving the shutter open too long could lead to “rotational streaking” of the image caused by the earth’s continual movement. Some photographers recommend the “500-second rule,” which says that the maximum exposure – in seconds — is roughly 500 divided by the focal length of your lens. For a standard 55mm lens, this is approximately 10 seconds; for a 250mm lens, it shortens to 4 seconds. (I’ve personally been able to double those values without ruining my pictures. So much for rules!)
Fortunately, digital cameras allow you to see your images right away. That immediate feedback allows you to adjust your settings and shoot again… and again until you get what you want. Trial and error always wins!
Post-processing: Even when you’ve taken a decent shot, it’s possible to make it even better. You can find a wide variety of photo processing applications in the market these days, and many of them are free! These programs allow you to change the size of the image, adjust its brightness and contrast, change the color or hue, and, by using curves and levels, grab every bit of detail from the image. One of my favorite packages is called Gimp. I had to go through a bit of a learning curve with it at first, but now that I’ve got the hang of it, I find myself spending as much time with post-processing as I do with taking the photos themselves.
To give you a taste of what you can do with the ideas I’ve just shared, I thought I’d show you a few of my recent pictures.