Summer is fast approaching, and with it ~hopefully~ should come some clearer spells great for backyard astronomy (or garden stargazing as I like to call it!).
The past few months have been dreadful for amateur astronomers like myself, with storms and thick layers of cloud filling the skies on all but a couple of nights. And the nights that are clear, always seem to fall at really inconvenient times. You could say that maybe its made me more appreciative of the few times the stars are out, and that it’s almost a good thing that I haven’t missed out on stargazing because I had to prioritise homework all the time- but I definitely miss the heatwave, clear skies and no responsibilities of lockdown one!
Anyway, rant over- if everything goes to plan, the summer should hold more clear nights, as well as being warmer and much more pleasant to sit outside in, so even if the actual time under dark skies decreases as the days get longer, summer is a great time to get into amateur astronomy/astrophotography or introduce your friends to it. Without further ado, here are my top 8 tips!
1. Be Prepared
This falls into 2 categories: first is weather wise, and second is to know what to look for!
In terms of weather, make sure you dress appropriately- this hobby tends to involve a lot of standing still, and doing star jumps to warm up will shake the ground and make your long exposures… interesting, to say the least!
Hopefully summer will bring warm weather and you’ll be able to head out in whatever you were wearing in the day, but if there’s a cold snap then I’d recommend layering up! My astronomy outfits for winter usually include long-sleeved thermal baselayers, a fleece and another pair of leggings, trackies and a hoodie, then my coat, gloves, hat and fluffy socks!
Generally, you should be able to rely on whatever weather app you usually use for the forecast, but there are apps specifically for astronomy (I use Clear Outside) that tend to be more accurate, especially during the unpredictable spring weather we are experiencing at the moment!
To help you figure out what you might be able to see, check out Stellarium! This is great for planning before you go out or trying to figure out what something you saw was, as it adapts to your area, in terms of location, time and light pollution. I mostly use the online version, but you can also download it onto your computer for free if wifi is an issue. I think there is also a mobile app but I can’t vouch for it as it costs £9.99 and there are others that are free!
Speaking of mobile apps, it’s a really good idea to download one in advance, to use during your session, as you can point your phone at the area of the night sky you are looking at and it will tell you what’s there! I mostly use Skyview Lite (it takes up less storage space on your phone than others lol), which is great for naked-eye astronomy and for beginners, as it is simpler. Night Sky is really immersive and has lots more detail, so is better once you have the hang of the basics and want a more comprehensive view, though it can be overwhelming and trickier to use.
2. Decide on your Stargazing Spot
If you live on top of a hill, a really open field or have access to a tall apartment block roof, then you don’t need to worry so much about this. But for the rest of us, our views of the night sky are usually limited by neighbouring houses or trees. You may be able to overcome this by looking out of different windows in your house or from your driveway vs garden. Try and find a location where you can see as much sky as possible, or factor in reduced visibility when deciding what to look for.
Personally, if I want to spot anything below about 30 degrees looking east, and 60 degrees looking west, I have to go on a bit of an adventure to find a local field. And that usually requires more planning (is it safe to go alone? are you able to carry all your equipment or will you need to drive? etc etc).
Another thing to take into account is light pollution. If you’re looking at a quarter-to-full moon, this isn’t so important as the moon will reduce your dark-adaption (that’s when your eyes become more sensitive in dark conditions) anyway- a full moon can actually cast shadows it’s so bright! But if you want to spot satellites or take photos with less noise, make sure to turn off the lights and pull the curtains across to minimise any nearby sources.
Some light pollution is unavoidable if you don’t want to travel to a dark sky site, which will limit the number of stars and other interesting objects you can see, so check out the level of light pollution in your area here.
3. Get to know your equipment in the day time
If you’re planning on sticking to naked-eye astronomy, you can skip to tip 4, but for everyone else…
You don’t want to be trying to assemble, align and focus your telescope/binoculars/camera for the first time in the dark/at night/under time-pressured conditions, so practising in the daytime with a distant object like a tree is always a good idea!
Aligning the finderscope on a telescope can be quite tricky (mine still doesn’t work half the time!), so it may take a few tries- don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work first time. And for big objects like the moon you can always just roughly align with the finderscope and then track across that area of sky until you get to it!
In terms of magnification, always start on a low magnification (the longer lens on a telescope/shorter lens on a camera), as it’s easier to locate and focus the object, and then switch to a higher magnification if necessary.
4. Keep track of what you see
If I was to go back to May 2020, this is the one bit of advice I would tell myself. I really wish I had kept a logbook of some sort so that I could remember what I saw and how I improved! In a way, astrophotography sort of *is* keeping a log, so I suppose my photography instagram would be a less-formal-sort-of-logbook! But what I share on my instagram probably isn’t even 10% of the different things I’ve tried to photograph, mostly because half the time it doesn’t turn out right, or I never get around to editing them.
5. You don’t *need* any fancy editing software
In terms of editing, most people use photoshop and specific astrophotography software, but I’ve gotten by just fine using PS Express (the free version of photoshop) and occasionally other apps like photoshop mix. Its not ideal, and my photos certainly don’t turn out as good as those who do use proper software, but a) photoshop is expensive and the ripoffs seem overwhelmingly hard to use and b) I simply haven’t had time to sit down and learn. That’s not to say it’s not worth it-I can’t wait until I have time to learn, but you shouldn’t let the lack of software or training put you off, you can learn just by playing around with different settings!
6. Just Start!
In the same vain, you don’t need to be a photography pro or spend ages learning about photography to start. I think I first properly picked up our old camera in April last year, and in May I started pointing it at the moon, before moving on to the night sky in general. My first photos weren’t the best (see: satellite trails that wiggle across the sky, blurry photos, very noisy photos.. i could go on), but with each bad photo I simply adjusted the settings, got a bit of new kit, or just tried out a new idea!
7. The Equipment You Need
To be honest, other than a camera of some sorts, there is little that is absolutely necessary for astrophotography. If you don’t have a tripod, you can rest your camera on a table and use books to angle it, if you don’t have a remote shutter release you can just carefully press the button manually or rest books on the button to take longer exposures, if you don’t have an adaptor you can just hold your phone/camera and take photos through the eyepiece etc etc.
You don’t even necessarily need a DSLR camera! Lots of newer phones have incredible cameras for their sizes, and either have a built in ability to change settings, or you can download apps that give you more control (NightSky has an astrophotography mode, or there are countless apps that come up just by searching astrophotography in the app store).
However getting the right equipment does make life easier- whether you are using your phone, a camera or through binoculars, a tripod is so useful. It means you can take much longer exposures (trying to take an exposure longer than 0.1s without the camera moving is quite hard if you’re holding it) and also self portraits which can be quite fun! I started off using one that came with a small telescope I had borrowed from school, and when I gave that back I bought a little flimsy one off amazon for £15, which did the job, other than the fact it was very short, and broke after a few months… the one I use now is only an extra £5 ish but its much sturdier, and extends to over 1.5m, so I don’t have to break my back to line up the shot! I got it for christmas, so thanks goes to my parents for that one!
The other must-have is a remote control shutter release. Again, just bought from amazon, but it means that my long exposures no longer show stars/satellites wiggling across the sky due to me shaking the camera as I press buttons! Again, also good if you want to take self portraits.
Those are the 2 ‘accessory’ type things that i use most, but I also have a DSLR adaptor for the telescope (see this post for details) which is quite good but the weight of the camera can cause issues with the motor if you have a small computerised mount, so I only use it very rarely! One thing that I keep meaning to get would be a phone adapter, as some of my best photos have come from holding my phone up to the eyepiece of a telescope, but its very difficult to hold it in place. At the moment I overcome this by filming down the lens and going back through a screenshotting the best frames after, but this reduces the quality quite significantly!
Another thing that isn’t really specific to astrophotography, but I also have a little USB adaptor (another christmas present, thanks Dad!) that I can plug my SD card into instead of having to plug my whole camera in. Again, this really isn’t necessary as such, but it does make life easier!
8. Start with the moon and stars
The moon is the easiest target for both astrophotography and stargazing, but that doesn’t make it any less rewarding than deep sky astronomy! Here’s why:
- Its easy to spot because its so big and bright, making it a good target if you’re starting out with a telescope or binoculars
- There’s lots to see on it- there are so many craters and other features to get to know, many of which you can see at a low magnification
- It’s always changing! Everyone knows that the moon changes shape over the month, but seeing it up close, watching which craters become visible and which stand out (hint: craters are most pronounced at the terminator – the boundary between light and dark – where the shadows cast are longest) is seriously cool!
- You can take a good photo with really simple settings or even on auto, but you can also progress and learn to make stacked photos and/or combine different exposures to bring out different features (this is what I’m currently learning!)
- You can play around with different things in the foreground like trees, buildings or people to make the photos more interesting!
Another fairly easy thing is just to take long exposures of the wider night sky with a wide angle/ low magnification lens. This helped me learn about ISO, exposure lengths, noise and star trails, as well as just helping me get to know constellations and different objects in the night sky. If you’d like, comment below and I’ll tell you what I’ve learnt, but it’s quite fun to try and figure it out for yourself and to get to know your camera better. You might also be able to spot satellites and the milky way this way!
Once you’re confident with that, move on to galaxies and the messier objects. It can be quite difficult, but good starting points are Andromeda, the Orion Nebula and the Beehive Cluster. You might find that one of these appears as something interesting in your wide angle shot, then you can switch to a different lens or setting to capture them in greater detail!
If you take away anything from this post, I hope its that there are a lot less barriers to starting astrophotography or stargazing than you might have thought. If you still aren’t convinced astronomy is for you, stay tuned (you can sign up for notifications here) for a short post coming soon about why you should start!
Do you have any other tips for aspiring astronomers? Or are you looking to get into some backyard astronomy yourself? Let me know in the comments and feel free to ask any questions!