by Clifford McKinney '20
Astrophotography, like the name suggests, is a subset of photography that focuses on capturing the night sky. More specifically, taking detailed photos of stars and other celestial bodies. Within astrophotography, there exist multiple different categories, each with a separate focus. These may be as technical as taking a photo of a specific star billions of miles away, or, as I like to do, taking photographs of entire landscapes lit up by the night sky. No matter the approach, the craft requires a combination of good location, equipment, and technique.
The most important element for a successful photo is the location. Obviously, you need a clear sky so that you can see the stars. But, your location also necessitates as little light pollution as possible. What is light pollution? Well, look up. Washington, D.C. is a city and, like any major city, it has a lot of lights. All of those lights illuminate the night sky so much that only about a dozen stars are visible to the eye. In a location with little-to-no light pollution, almost five thousand stars are visible. That means you need to travel — typically to a rural area where stars are clearly visible. After you find a suitable are, it is best to scout out a scene before the sun sets. I like to find a place that would look just as good photographed in daylight as it would at night. This way, the starry sky only adds to the photo's appeal.
Setting up for the photo requires equipment and — while entry-level cameras will work — higher quality cameras will deliver crisper results. The most important piece of equipment, though, is a tripod. Astrophotography requires a long shutter speed, so the camera must be as steady as possible. Wide-angle lenses with a large aperture are also necessary to capture as much light as possible in a dark environment. A camera with a large sensor is crucial for high-quality photos. I myself use a full-frame sensor camera.
Proper technique is the last element of good astrophotography. The most difficult skill is setting up your camera. To capture the night sky, you need a relatively long shutter speed so that enough light reaches the camera's sensor. But, if you have too long a shutter speed, each individual star will appear as a streak. This occurrence, known as star trails, is because of the Earth's rotation causing the camera to move relative to each star. Finding the correct shutter speed ends up becoming a task of trial and error. You have to be prepared to take a lot of photos before you get the right one.
The real joy of astrophotography for me is enjoying the night sky. Living in and around a city means that most of us do not get to see the wonder of a sky peppered with thousands of stars. But, when that time arises, astrophotography allows you to appreciate the grandeur of the universe while also creating a unique photograph.