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Getting Started in Astrophotography

Would you like to get started in astrophotography?  If so, you’ll be pleased to know that it is easier and less expensive than you might think.  Here are two types of astrophotography that require only common photographic equipment that you may already own.  Try them both to see how easy it is to start taking great night-sky photos.

Start with Star Trails

Star trails are the easiest way to start in astrophotography.  All you need is a camera and a remote control or intervalometer to hold the shutter open.  The intervalometer is a device that controls the number and length of exposures.  To make a star-trail image with just one exposure, follow these simple steps.  First, setup your camera on a stable tripod.  Second, point the camera north and perhaps add an interesting foreground element. Third, select a fairly low ISO number (250-400 for most cameras).  Fourth, keep the shutter open for 30-45 minutes.  The long exposure results in elongated stars.  Now you have a dramatic photo of the night sky.

Getting started with star trails.

Star trails above the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope at Kitt Peak. Photo by, Casey Good/NOIRLab/AURA/NSF

Milky Way Astrophotography

In summer (or winter for our southern hemisphere friends), the Milky Way arches high overhead for your enjoyment.  The Milky Way is relatively easy to shoot with the same equipment used for star trails.  You’ll need a sturdy tripod and a fast, wide-field lens.  A lens of 24-mm or less and f/4 or less works best.  It also helps to have a reasonably dark sky.  Remember, an interesting foreground scene or object really makes your image appealing and puts the night sky into perspective.  After framing your scene, keep your exposure under 30 seconds.  And shoot with a higher ISO (between 3200/6400 for most cameras).  The increased sensitivity of the higher ISO really brings out the Milky Way in your exposure.

Getting started with Wide-field Milky Way photo.

The Milky Way rising over the Case Western Reserve observatory at Kitt Peak. Photo by, Casey Good/NOIRLab/AURA/NSF

Zoom into your image.  You’ll notice that you probably captured several types of astronomical objects.  Near the core of the Milky Way lie emission nebula, dark dust lanes that block out starlight, star clusters, and more!

Getting started in astrophotography is simple if you follow the steps above.  You’ll take photos you can show proudly.  If you are interested in learning more, attend our Introduction to Astrophotography workshop by making a reservation at visitkittpeak.org/astrophotography-workshops.  While you’re there, check out our other overnight programs at visitkittpeak.org/overnight-programs.

— Casey Good, Kitt Peak Visitor Center Guide, www.good-astronomy.com

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KITT PEAK IS CURRENTLY CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC

To help prevent the spread of the virus causing Covid-19, we have closed the observatory and the mountain road to the public, and cancelled all upcoming public programs. Please do not travel up the mountain road for any reason, or by any means. If you are scheduled for programs in the next few months, please check back before traveling to Arizona, or traveling up the mountain.

Headlights Are Not Allowed
on Kitt Peak After Dark

Kitt Peak is first and foremost a research facility. To avoid interfering with research during nighttime programs, the Visitor Center adheres to strict lighting control procedures. 

Your vehicle’s headlights will be covered. When you leave after any evening program, you will be guided by an observatory vehicle for one mile down the mountain road.  After that first mile, staff will remove the headlight covers for you. 

Guests may not leave the programs early except in cases of genuine emergency.  By making a reservation in any of our nighttime programs, you indicate your understanding of and willingness to abide by these procedures. 

No one may visit the observatory after 4:00 P.M. unless registered for a nighttime program.