It doesn't take long to burn out on a single photographic genre, especially for a creative person not being challenged enough. If you’re in danger of burnout and could use a unique challenge to reignite your passion for photography, consider astrophotography.
I will never forget that cold December night in rural central Wisconsin. It was the first time I had captured the stars with my camera. I ventured out with my tripod and DSLR, expecting that the dark sky would be fun to experiment with. But I had no way of knowing how enjoyable this process would be.
Driving back to Chicago the next night to pop the SD card into my computer, I felt like a kid on Christmas day. I relished toying with the luminous images and was amazed at what my simple camera setup was able to capture. This sent me on a path of obsessing over astro-imaging, one that lasted several years (I still enjoy the genre today).
The high of astrophotography never having fully faded, I still enjoy the elation I feel from finding an exceptionally dark site, especially when using it to capture astronomical phenomena like a comet or a meteor shower.
Full disclosure: Not every night shooting astronomy is enjoyable, successful, or even comfortable. And if you're new to long-exposure photography, there will be hurdles and learning curves to conquer. However, several rewards of astrophotography make the effort worthwhile. Here are five.
1. It Will Push Your Work to New Levels
Shooting in the dark is a skill that almost every photographer will need to develop at some point, since many genres of photography have opportunities or requirements for long exposures. And mastering astrophotography is a great way to learn the art of powerfully long exposure time.
If you're a wedding photographer, you might expect to get away hand-holding every shot, even in the dark. But doing more long exposure photography, like astro-imaging, can breathe new inspiration into the other genres. Getting extra creative and setting up a tripod and lights is a unique way to surprise and please your wedding clients.
Astrophotography pushes us to the limits of patience, exposure time, and focusing skills. Do you pride yourself on tack-sharp imagery? Try challenging your pride by capturing nighttime skyscape images with a high depth of field. It's not as easy as it sounds.
2. It Will Force You to Get Outside
In a time where much of the world is still practicing some amount of self-quarantine, getting outside is more crucial for our mental health than ever. In the same way that fishing is relaxing, so is setting your camera up for a time-lapse shot during a meteor shower, then sitting back to enjoy the show. You are enjoying a recreational activity and the chance to enjoy newfound leisure time. During this waiting process, you'll feel obliged to reflect, ponder, and clear your head, all while taking in the night sky. Many refer to observing astronomy and its phenomena as "the greatest show on earth.”
An important tip: Make sure to check weather conditions before venturing out late into the night. If you face the prospect of cold weather, bundle up appropriately and always prepare for the coldest possible conditions.
3. You'll Learn More About the Universe and the World
It helps if you know Saturn from Uranus. Being able to plan out an astrophotography venture requires an elementary knowledge of astronomy and some research into the current night sky. And if instead of landscapes, you decide to take the route of deep-sky imaging (capturing nebulae, star clusters, galaxies, and more), you'll be pursuing even more interesting knowledge about how the universe works.
With your expanded knowledge that helps you to enjoy and capture "deep-sky objects," you might one day find yourself prattling away to intrigued friends about the beautiful hydrogen clouds in the Cygnus region. It can happen to even the non-nerdiest of us.
Astrophotography can also spread awareness about the modern issue of light pollution -- not just in the increasing challenge of finding those elusive dark sites, but also in imagery challenges. In fact, the negative impacts of man-made light can be glaringly obvious in a long exposure photo. Many great landscape images of the Milky Way show a stark contrast between dark and artificially bright skies.
4. Your Network Will Expand
You'll soon discover that astronomy enthusiasts are everywhere. Many enjoy participating in activities together, and I have found most amateur astronomy communities to be warmly accepting of newcomers. Space fans that I've come across typically love sharing their wonder and excitement with strangers, especially when it comes to sharing with someone who is less familiar with the night sky.
If you decide to network with other astronomy enthusiasts, you may find yourself attending their gatherings, called "star parties" (once it becomes safe to do so). These parties can almost resemble a camping music festival, tents and all, though the crowd is far more low-key. And instead of listening to live musicians, you'll be photographing the Double Cluster in Perseus through your new friend's telescope.
5. Starry Skies Are Often Just a Short Drive Away
According to a study done in 2016, roughly 80% of the world’s population lives in an area with significant light pollution. As depressing at this figure is, it's by no means a sentence to sitting under hazy, bright skies every night. A drive of just an hour or so out of most metropolitan areas is typically enough to get a decent view and stunning photographs of the night sky. Some larger cities may require more travel.
The image above this paragraph shows just how light-polluted the north side of Chicago is. While the image below isn't particularly attractive, it illustrated just how much can be seen with magnification.
Magnification (zoom lenses or telescopes) plus long exposure times can reveal much more than meets the eye, even when shooting through light pollution. You might be surprised to snap a photo from a city that's in an "orange" (moderate) zone on a Dark Sky Map, only to reveal the Milky Way.
The Potential Downside
Fair warning: Astrophotography is fun but also addictive and can easily afflict a shooter with "shiny object syndrome." Since you will inevitably "hit a wall" regarding how much you're able to capture with your gear setup, you may find yourself upgrading and adding to your imaging rig often. This can become an exceptionally expensive hobby — as if photography at large wasn't expensive enough.
Once you decide to try your hand at photographing deep-sky objects like nebulae and galaxies, you'll need to invest in a motorized telescope mount, then adapt your camera to it with even more accessories. But you will be limited in exposure time, depending on the quality of your mount, your focal length, and ability to perform an accurate "polar alignment."
If you're unlucky enough to be moved by the dazzling photos you see on Flickr's Deep Space Astrophotography pool, you'll soon be eyeing an auto-guiding system, plus a CCD camera and stacking software for your next round of purchases. These items will all run you well over $10,000 USD, assuming you buy quality equipment.
This type of obsession isn't easy to shake. I've made it my personal goal to have my own backyard astronomy shed by the time I'm retired. I’ll always be inspired by this infinitely large subject.
Astrophotography can be challenging and fun, as well as a great excuse to get outside and even meet new people (please do that safely). If you've never tried shooting the stars, I hope this article moves you in the astral direction. And if you're already capturing this awe-inspiring subject, I hope I've encouraged you to go out and shoot more.
What's a favorite astro image that you've taken? Share it in the comment section below.
Lead image by the author.