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Astrophotography for Beginners
6-week course
Royal Observatory, Greenwich
Course Tutor: Dr Darren Baskill

   Over the last 20 years, a revolution has occurred in photography. Digital cameras, a technology originally developed purely for astronomy research in the 1970's & 80's, are now commonplace. Such cameras give users immediate feedback, resulting in a much more rapid learning curve. What used to take weeks of dedicated practice in order to get a good shot can now be done within an hour. As digital technology continues to rapidly improve, getting great photographs of the night sky has never been easier.

    During this course, participants will discover just what is needed - and just how easy it can be - to take great and original astronomy photographs. There are 6 evening dates during the course, and to make the most of a clear night, there may be some flexibility in the evening scheduling.

  The aim of the course is to teach participants the basic techniques required for astro-photography, and the course is run alongside our annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition at the Royal Observatory, which was initiated by Darren in late 2007 and began in 2009, the International Year of Astronomy.

 Darren has been taking astronomy photographs since 1995 when he was studying astrophysics at the University of Leicester. He began using the now old-fashioned technology of wet film and patience and is now stunned on a regular basis with the sensitivity of modern digital cameras.

Course notes

  • The plan below will change as the course progresses, as we will try to take advantage of any clear nights!
  • Please bring any equipment you have if the weather forecast predicts a clear night!
  • Please send your astrophotographs to the course tutor via email so that they can be displayed during the show of participants work in week 5. The deadline for your photo's is the 31st of January, to give me the weekend to sort them, and my colleagues a week to program them into the planetarium system.
  • Please note that PDF files from each evening will appear as we go through the course. Some of these are large and so may take a minute or two to open and/or download.
  • All the photographs used in the course are Copyright Dr Darren Baskill, unless otherwise stated.

A course summary is available as a pdf.

Week 1
Introduction & Basics [pdf]
» Mobile, compact and DSLR camera's; camera settings including quality, exposure time, ISO, f-number
The Sun and Moon [pdf]
» Solar telescopes & filters; photographing the Moon; planning striking photographs using OS maps & Stellarium; many of the original, fun and inspiring photographs shown in this lecture are by Laurent Laveder.

Week 2
Wide angle astrophotography [pdf]
» Looking at easy-to-take but stunning to look at wide angle photographs.
Planetarium session
» Planetarium session watching our Universe Exposed show, and looking at the 2013 Astronomy Photographer of the Year winners.

Week 3
Processing software [pdf]
» Demonstrations using IrfanView to try to correct for light pollution, Star Trails for stacking images, and Deep Sky Stacker to align and stack images. See also this 90 second tutorial. The PDF contains a brief list of useful software for Windows, Linux and Macs.
Planetarium session
» Issues unique to astrophotography

Week 4
Sights through a zoom lens, and telescopes [pdf]
» What we can see through a zoom lens on a camera, and a telescope (which is just a big zoom lens!). Once we zoom in, we need to track the stars, and so here is a brief guide to telescopic and camera mounts.
Bits & bobs [pdf]
» Covering tracking mounts, adapters, filters, CCD's and a few useful Apps.

Week 5
Video astrophotography [pdf]
» Looking at using video for lunar and planetary shots, using RegiStax.
Summary lecture [pdf]
» A summary of the course.

Week 6
Participants photographs
» A chance to look at what everyone on the course have been photographing over the last few weeks - thanks everyone who have submitted their photos!
Practical session with small telescopes
» Practising taking astrophotos with the small telescopes, before using the same techniques with the big refractor.
Practical session with a big telescope
» Spending the night with the 28" refractor, and outside getting practical experience using small telescopes too.

Miscellaneous advice

  • Focusing: Focusing is always a pain in low light levels, as there is simply not enough light at night for a camera to work out the focus point for itself. There are several things you can do to get a good focus...
    • Try to focus (either manually or automatically) on the brightest thing you can see - I tend to use either the Moon or a distant street light.
    • Failing that, use the live view mode if your camera has it, and zoom in and focus on a bright planet or star.
    • Try focusing on a distant object in daylight, and noting at what position your lens is it - it may by slightly off from the marking on the lens.
    That last point is important - the infinity mark on your camera lens might not be in exactly the right place. The painted marks on a lens are usually slightly off from reality, so when a camera lens is focused at infinity, it may be slightly off from the marks on the lens. On one of my lenses, it is focused at infinity about 1.5mm off from the centre of the infinity symbol.
    Once you are focused, turn off the auto-focus on your DSLR lens, and it will stay at that "focused at infinity" position.`
  • Brightness: Stars can appear faint on photographs. The way to make them appear brighter is to use either a longer exposure, or a higher ISO setting. Also double check your f-number - it should be as low as possible (e.g. f4 or f5.6).
  • White Balance: Again, cameras find it impossible to accurately estimate the correct white balance for a scene at low light levels. I recommend selecting the daylight white balance as that gives the best colours - daylight is colour from our nearest star, after all.