Free Feature • Overcoming The Astro Photography Curve

Overcoming The Astro Photography Curve
Photographing the night sky is not easy task. However, with a bit of help and advice from Keith Briley, things can start looking a lot brighter

Photographing the night sky, particularly the Milky Way, is an area that I have been interested in for a long time. Until recently, however, I have not been intentional about putting the time into learning anything past the basics. In November of last year, my wife attended the Photo Plus trade show and had the opportunity to meet with the company, Sky-Watcher. Shortly after she arrived home, a Star Adventurer showed up on our doorstep.

Recently, during our spring workshop in Charleston, we had our guests up and out of the hotel room at 03:00, boarded a private boat and took them out to a remote barrier island that is accessible only by federal permission. While there, the sky was crystal clear, the moon had set three hours earlier and the milky way was in all her glory, prior to the sun rising. Although we hadn’t planned on our workshop to include astro photography, luck found us and we had the chance to capture the night sky. Like myself, none of our participants had used a Star Adventurer before.

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Like all photography, astro has the basics that you need to know such as the moon rise and set times, sunrise and sunset times, as well as the position of the Milky Way in the sky. All of this involves planning and being intentional about getting out of bed or being out all night to capture these beautiful opportunities.

The question begs to be asked though, if you can photograph reasonably well without a Star Adventurer or similar product, why make the investment? This was the question I brought to the table, but soon realized the answer was fairly basic.

Photography in its most basic form starts with general knowledge about apertures, shutter speeds, and ISO. However, as we all know, when you add in thoughtful compositions that invite the viewer into an aesthetically pleasing scene, you make the transition from having a snapshot to a piece of fine art. This progression from beginner to advanced involves time spent studying, practice, research, and implementing. The same is true with astro photography. In my opinion, the Sky Watcher simply takes things to the next level.

Whether you are starting with macro or astro photography, research is important. Admittedly, the Star Adventurer is not something you can pull out of the box, throw the instructions aside and wing it. Before the system arrives on your doorstep, be aware that you will want to watch a few YouTube videos to familiarize yourself with the setup. I was able to narrow down the step-up of the system to 12 fairly easy steps after watching the videos. Here are a couple of links to these videos:

This is what you will need with the system:

  • Ball Head (you’ll want to find a sturdy ball head such as RRS)
  • 4 x AA Batteries
  • Slotted Screwdriver
  • Your Camera
  • Sturdy Tripod
  • App on your phone such as Polar Align (otherwise type in ‘Polar Finder’ in a search engine).
  • Head lamp

My best piece of advice for getting started with the Sky Adventurer is to have your computer handy and setup your Adventurer on the tripod prior to your night shoot. You don’t want to be fumbling around in the dark with new gear. This will be the fastest track to frustration. Once you are set up and in the field, allow yourself plenty of time to set up and use your head lamp to slowly and patiently make sure you are faced north, you have set your latitude and you find Polaris (North Star). Your latitude will obviously vary based on your location. If you are in New York, you will be looking at about 41 degrees. If you are in the North Pole, however, you would look directly above you. You are looking for a star that is 434 light years from Earth, so give yourself a minute to find it.

Becoming familiar with spotting the North Star will be important in your workflow. The axis of the earth is pointed almost directly at it, which allows it to be fairly easy to spot as it doesn’t rise or set, but stays in nearly the same place. Another helpful hint is to look for the Little Dipper, and Polaris will be at the handle.

Lastly, be patient. Although you may, don't expect to knock it out of the park on your first attempt. This tool, like many, takes time to get to know. But, its usefulness for a tack-sharp night sky is well worth the effort.

I hope this brief introduction to the Sky Adventurer, from a beginner’s perspective, has been helpful. At a retail price of $329, it’s a great tool to pickup if you want to deepen your understanding and the quality of your astro photography.

Astro Fast Fact:
Did you know that the two stars at the front of the Little Dippers bowl are two of the easiest to spot? They rotate around the North Star, and as a result are referred to as ‘Guardians of the Pole’.

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