Top Tips from astrophotographer Callum White
I have always been a keen amateur landscape photographer but I really fell in love with astrophotography after seeing the Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibit in 2013. A few years later I was lucky enough to go trekking in Nepal and experienced a night’s sky unlike anything I had seen before. The arch of the Milky Way was clearly visible to the naked eye blazing across the sky and, despite the exhaustion at 5000m above sea level, I got up as many nights as I could throughout our trek. Working full-time and having a family does make astrophotography a bit of a challenge but when the forecast is good and there is a new moon I’ll always try and make the round trip from Cheltenham to a dark sky spot and these are often places on the South West Coast Path.
Some of my favourite evenings under the stars in the UK have been at spots along the South West Coast Path and the combination of beautiful coastline and stunningly clear night skies is an amazing sight. Many locations along the SWCP are ideal for astrophotography, particularly on the southern facing sections, because the core of the Milky Way rises to the south and you get incredibly dark skies over the sea. Of course you don’t need to only photograph the core of the Milky Way – there are plenty of amazing constellations in the northern or western skies as well. The SWCP is also home to a myriad of coves, beaches, cliffs and rocky headlands which make for perfect foregrounds.
Astrophotography is perhaps more technical and challenging than normal landscape photography but all the same rules apply when it comes to what make a good photo. Think about how you might make a connection between the foreground, mid-ground and the starry sky – scouting your shots during daylight is essential because finding a good composition in the pitch black is near impossible. Leading lines (using the actual path for example) is one way you can draw a viewer in, but experiment and practice during the day before setting out for your nighttime shoot.
Here are a few tips if you’re starting out, as well as some suggestions for more advanced photographers as well;
- Use a light pollution map (I use www.lightpollutionmap.info) to find dark skies for your shoot and don’t forget to look in the direction of the Milky Way core as well – shooting facing away from any towns or cities is essential – this is more relevant for sections of the SWCP on the northern coastlines of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.
- There are a number of apps you can use to check when and where the core of the Milky Way rises – at this time of year it is usually around 3-5am towards the south. Make sure you aim for a few days either side of a new moon as well. PhotoPills is what I use to plan all my shots and is very effective.
- Make sure you get to your site in daylight to find your foreground composition – this is almost impossible in the pitch black and will save you lots of time on your shoot.
- A camera – any camera (even a good phone camera) is capable of capturing shots of the Milky Way these days.
- A sturdy tripod and shutter release cable are essential to take your photos with longer shutter speeds.
- Get a head torch with a red light – this doesn’t affect your night vision as much as normal light
- Fast prime lenses are the best for astrophotography, look for an aperture of f2.8 or wider (f1.8 is even better)
- Optionally, a star tracker – there are a number of fairly affordable and portable star trackers on the market now (MoveShootMove or Omegon Mini Track). These track the movement of the stars and allow you to use more favourable camera settings and longer shutter speeds. This can be an alternative to buying a new camera or lens and can work out much cheaper and yields amazing results.
Camera Settings, Processing and Composition
- If using a DSLR or similar – use a wide aperture (f2.8 for example), a high ISO (3200-6400) and a long shutter speed (10-20 seconds depending on focal length – see below).
- Use the rule of 400 to work out your maximum shutter speed – on a full frame camera this is about 400/focal length (so a 20mm lens should have a maximum of 20 seconds shutter speed).
- Focusing at night is easiest if you use live view, find a very bright star and then manually focus on that – turn off automatic focusing.
- Photographing foregrounds is often the trickiest part of astrophotography – especially as you’ll normally be working with a new moon. Using artificial lighting is one option (a torch or similar during a long shutter speed to light up the foreground) or even taking your foreground shots during blue hour and then blending the two together in your processing.
- When it comes to composing your photo, do not forget to try changing the height of the tripod – you will be surprised how much of a difference this can make.
- Stacking is a really good way of processing your photos if you only have a basic set of equipment – you can take 10-20 photos of the Milky Way and then process these to remove the noise that you get when using a high ISO.
Even if you don’t take any photos, experiencing the coastline at night is a wonderful experience and well worth doing if you haven’t before. Doing a night hike during a meteor shower (22-23rd April and 6th May are the next two) is one option, or during a full moon when you often don’t even need a head torch. Make sure you pack a blanket and a big thermos of coffee or tea and get out and enjoy the night next time the forecast is for clear skies!