Our night sky offers endless varieties of unique and beautiful phenomena. Explore the challenges of photographing astronomical events with tips from these six pro photographers.
In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, but what about the first person to photograph the moon? As far as we know, the first photographer to capture the full moon, at least in detail, was a scientist by the name of John William Draper. In 1840, he presented his work at a meeting of the New York Lyceum of Natural History. The minutes from that session read, in part, “This is the first time that anything like a distinct representation of the moon’s surface has been obtained.” From that iconic moment onward, photographers have continued to look to the sky.
Skywatching is an ancient science, but the art of photographing the sky evolves with every passing year. We asked six phenomenal photographers to tell us about their experiences tracking eclipses, meteor showers, constellations, and more. It’s been nearly 180 years since Draper first reported his successful attempts to capture the moon, but our fascination with space hasn’t wavered. No matter how many photographs we’ve seen, a great shot of the sky can inspire the same sense of awe and wonder in us today.
1. “I use an app called PhotoPills to map out the movements of the sun and moon.”
Image by Vincent Whiteman.Gear: Sky-watcher Equinox 80ED telescope mounted on a Manfrotto 410 head, which sat on the Astrotrac TT320X-AG, which sat on another Manfrotto 410 head using a Manfrotto 058B Triaut Camera tripod. Sony A7II camera, Sony E-Mount 2-inch UltraWide True-2 Prime Focus Adapter. Settings: Focal length 500mm; exposure 4 sec; f0.
What’s the story behind this photo?
This photo was taken in Greenwich Park, London, during totality of the lunar eclipse on the 27th of September, 2015. I slept in late the day before in order to prepare for a long night. The eclipse started just after midnight and finished just before 6:00 AM. It was a cold night, so there was a lot of pacing and jumping around to keep the blood flowing. I’d prepared a flask of tea to help. What I love about this shot is that the background stars, normally bleached out by the brightness of a full moon, appear and add an extra sparkle to the event.
I use an app called PhotoPills to map out the movements of the sun and moon. It also has some great tools for exposure calculation for time-lapses and star trails. Take a head torch that has a red light option to free up your hands and keep your eyes adjusted to the dark. Also take a Leatherman or something similar with you, as you never know when you’ll need to tighten a screw.
Pictured:  Vincent Whiteman  Vincent Whiteman  Vincent Whiteman
When photographing the Moon, I actually use a telescope and adaptor for my camera mounted on a studio tripod. My telescope is a 500mm lens and is f/0, but any telephoto lens from 200mm or higher will do the job nicely. You’ll want to keep your shutter speed to no less than 1/100 second and adjust the other settings accordingly.
Lunar eclipses require a little more patience. A lunar eclipse is when the Earth passes between the Sun and Moon, casting its shadow onto the surface of the moon. The highlight is that the moon turns an incredible blood red. It does this because the sun’s light passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, which is full of dust, pollutants, and other particles. Blue light bounces off these particles, while red light, which has a longer wavelength than blue, passes straight through the dust and onto the moon.
Lunar eclipses often occur in the depths of night when everyone is asleep. If you want to capture the whole event, which consists of six stages, you’re looking at around five and a half hours of shooting. The moon’s brightness varies considerably as the shadow passes from the penumbral to the umbral phase of the eclipse.
To make things a little easier, you might want to use a star tracker. But that does add in the extra complication of setting up. There are a number of good, easy-to-use trackers available that are portable, such as the Astrotrac or sky-watcher Star Adventurer. This will allow you to track the moon as it crosses the sky so you don’t need to constantly realign the camera as it moves out of frame.
There are two types of solar eclipses: total and annular. Total eclipses are by far the crown jewel of eclipses. Totality is over in a matter of minutes, so you have to be ready for this one. A total eclipse is when the sun is completely blocked out by the moon, showing off solar prominences (solar flares) and the corona (the sun’s atmosphere).
For both solar eclipses, a special filter is required. I want to stress that you must never look at the sun directly. Use certified filters like Baader AstroSolar Film. There is a special version which is ND 3.8 and designed for photography and not visual observing. You won’t have time to mess with the settings. It’s hard to maintain mental focus, so let the camera do the work by bracketing your shots.
2. “High elevation mountains or dry desert conditions will give you an even clearer view of the sky.”
Video by lovemushroom.Gear: Sony A7R II camera, Rokinon 24mm F/1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 20 sec; f1.4; ISO 1250 (time-lapse of 489 shots in 3 hours).
What’s the story behind this time-lapse?
I photographed the Aurora and the Perseids meteor shower in 2017 in Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, the deepest lake in the USA. I was shooting during the 2017 Oregon wildfires, so smoke filled a big part of the sky and the caldera. Just at the moment when I almost gave up and started packing, I spotted strong airglow in the frame. From there, rare, low latitude Auroras formed in the middle of summer in Oregon.
Nowadays, most mid-range to high-end DSLR cameras are good for capturing meteor showers, so stop making excuses, and head out into the field this summer! Search for skywatching event calendars on the internet, or use a smartphone app to track the date of the next meteor shower. You might find information on more localized events at a nearby planetarium, observatory, or university website.
The April Lyrids meteor shower and the Perseids meteor shower in August are good places to start. Look for a dark location away from city lights. High elevation mountains or dry desert conditions will give you an even clearer view of the sky. Shoot time-lapse to maximize the chances of capturing meteor showers, and use multiple cameras if possible. Filming a meteor shower is more like fishing than hunting. Let the camera roll for a while.
3. “Practice ahead!…After doing all the research and gathering my equipment, I did a dress rehearsal.”
Image by Jennifer Bosvert.Gear: Nikon D810 camera, AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 lens, Orion Safety Solar filter 4.10,” tripod. Settings: Focal length 500mm; exposure 1/30 sec; f11; ISO 100.
What’s the story behind this photo?
The total solar eclipse of 2017 in North America was my first. As a child, I vaguely remember a near-total eclipse. My dad took me outside to see it, and I remember it got cold and dark for a little bit. Dad loved dragging me out of bed as a teenager in the middle of the night to show me astronomical objects through his 10-inch Dobsonian telescope, and he spent decades planning our viewing party in his Dallas, Oregon backyard.
As it got closer, I thought the total eclipse posed an exciting photographic challenge, so I did my research, bought a solar filter for my 500mm lens, and practiced taking pictures of the sun. All the preparation was worth it when I saw the diamond ring on the back of my camera. Later, I was just blown away when I got a look at my images in detail and discovered that I’d also gotten shots with three major solar prominences. I made sure my Dad was the first one to see those pictures.
Practice ahead! As photographers, we can spend a lot of time researching all the right f-stops for an event like this, but practicing with the actual equipment is just as important. In my case, Dallas, Oregon had one minute and fifty-seven seconds of totality, which gave me one minute and fifty-seven seconds to get the shot of a lifetime. Zero time for re-shoots.
After doing all the research and gathering my equipment, I did a dress rehearsal. I shot the sun with the exact setup I would use on the day. That way I was able to fine-tune settings for the partial phases of the eclipse. I saved money by buying a filter actually made for a telescope, but thanks to the dry run, I knew I’d need a little gaffer tape to secure it. The last thing you want to be doing when the diamond ring happens is wrestling with your filter, so I needed to practice taking it off and on quickly for the totality phase.
A shot list is another make-or-break tool. I taped mine to a wall right next to my camera, so when that minute and fifty-seven rolled around, I didn’t have to think. I could just work my way down the list, quickly changing settings in between. Don’t forget to take time to look up, look around at those you’re with, enjoy the light and the owls flying by, and feel the temperature drop, because it truly is a completely unique and memorable experience.
4. “In my view, it is important to try something that others have not done before.”
Image by Dario Giannobile.Gear: Canon 7D Mark I camera, Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 Mark I lens, tripod and intervalometer. Settings: Focal length 11mm; f4. For the stars: 186 shots, exposure 8 sec; ISO 400. For the background: two shots, exposure 1.6 & 1/3 sec; ISO 400.
What’s the story behind this photo?
This was the first time I shot a star trail within a city. The idea came from a friend of mine, who told me about a guy who was attempting to shoot the Milky Way not far from a city. I decided to try it myself, but instead of the Milky Way, I was able to catch the stars around the Orion constellation.
I took the picture in Ortygia, the ancient Greek center of Syracuse in Italy, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The star trail was set above the most beautiful plaza. I had to figure out how to capture the stars in a sky with heavy light pollution, and I also had to recover the highlights for the background. Once I understood how to shoot this kind of “in-town astrophotography,” I produced many more complex images.
It is not mandatory to have top gear. Some of my best photos—including an award-winning shot that was selected as “Astronomy Picture of the Day” by NASA—were made using an old Canon 7D and semi-pro lens.
Plan your shoot at home. Keep a detailed checklist of your gear, and wear proper clothing if you plan to stay outside in the cold. Once you are outside in the dark, everything is more complicated, so check your location on Google Maps in advance, and, if possible, go there at twilight. In my view, it is important to try something that others have not done before. Originality can make all the difference.
A good way to keep track of astronomical events is to regularly check print and web magazines. Sky & Telescope offers a useful blog called “this week at a glance.” Download some freeware planetarium software such as Stellarium to simulate a celestial event at home or to find details about orientation and timing. There are also other apps that provide information about the position of the Milky Way or moonrise and moonset. My favorite is TPE, The Photographer’s Ephemeris.
5. “Often, the atmosphere will be clear following a big rain, so that’s a good time to shoot.”
Image by Allexxandar.Gear: Canon 80D camera, 50mm f1.4 Canon lens. Settings: Exposure 1 hour (30 images at 120 sec each); f1.4; ISO 100.
What’s the story behind this photo?
This image was taken deep in the forest. When I am alone in the forest, I am silent. The animals are not afraid of me, and they are so curious that they often come close. Luckily, there are no dangerous animals in this forest. In summer, my main target is the Milky Way, but higher temperatures mean more noise and grain on the images. It is hard to explain why I continue to shoot all night, often in cold weather. I just love the night sky.
Preparation is the most important thing. I use Stellarium to track the positions of objects in the sky, but there are many similar apps. It is much easier when you know what time everything will happen. You will need good, solid tripod to minimize vibrations.
In terms of shooting the moon, the main problem is the Earth’s atmosphere. Often, the atmosphere will be clear following a big rain, so that’s a good time to shoot. This image was my first try with a composite moon. It was captured from my balcony on a summer night:
6. “When photographing astronomical events, planning is key.”
Image by Matipon.Gear: Nikon D800E camera, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 14mm. For the sky: exposure 25 sec x 7; f2.8; ISO 3200. For the foreground: exposure 1/15 sec x 7; f10; ISO 200.
What’s the story behind this photo?
This is a panorama of the night sky, featuring the Milky Way over the sailing stones of the Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park. The racetrack is a remote location, and it is difficult and dangerous to reach, but it offers one of the darkest skies available. At night, this whole playa turns pitch black, and no amount of exposure will bring out the foreground. Finding a rock in total darkness is also extremely difficult. I used twilight blend in this photo, meaning I had to get the foreground during twilight, leave my tripod there, and wait for nighttime. Knowing where the Milky Way was going to be and finding the perfect rock with the perfect trail were the keys to composing this photo.
When photographing astronomical events, planning is key. You will need to know when the event will take place and where it is going to be, because if you miss it, you’re likely not going to have that chance again. There are many apps that can help you get started. Stellarium is free to use and good for getting a rough idea of what to expect at what time.
Though the main focus in astrophotography is the sky, it can enhance a photo if you bring in a good foreground. There are paid apps like PhotoPills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris that can help with your foreground and background composition. At the same time, scouting the location in person can get you more information than any app can provide.
The discussion of gear is an ongoing and everlasting debate. Personally, I’d recommend you just shoot with what you have. My personal rule of thumb is that if you can’t tell the difference, then don’t bother. Keep using your old gear until you feel like you’re starting to hit a wall.