Editor’s note: In a previous edition, we featured some breathtaking astrophotography content from Soumyadeep Mukherjee—the first Indian to be awarded ‘Astronomy Photographer of the Year’ by Royal Museums Greenwich. The feature sparked great curiosity about astrophotography—and what it takes to get started. This is Soumyadeep’s guide for beginners who want to shoot the stars.
Written by: Soumyadeep Mukherjee
So you want to be an astrophotographer…
Compared to other genres like wedding, wildlife, and street photography, astrophotography has yet to catch on in India. I see two main reasons for this. The first is that most believe astrophotography requires professional equipment like large telescopes and access to observatories. The other reason is limited availability of quality astro-equipment. As recently as two years ago, we only had one or two dealers in India who used to sell such equipment—and the rest of the gear needed to be imported, paying a high import tax.
But India has seen a surge in interest in astrophotography in the past couple of years (global pandemics have a way of causing people to look up). And the number of dealers selling equipment in the country has gone up. So this is an excellent time to fall in love with astrophotography.
So I’m gonna need pricey gear?
Quite the contrary! Unlike what many believe, you can get started with astrophotography with widely owned gear.
Your smartphone: Astrophotography is typically long exposure photography (meaning the camera shutter remains open a long time to capture as much light as possible from faint stars and planets). You’ll want to switch over to Manual/Pro mode on your camera to manually set the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture to achieve this. One side effect of this long exposure time is the image becomes super sensitive to any movement. Mounting your phone on a tripod will give you the best results.
App recommendations: Google Camera, Astrocam
A DSLR camera: These types of cameras are the most commonly used for astrophotography, so if you own one, you're already pretty sorted. One of the issues you're likely to face is that stars... move around. Like the Sun and Moon, most of the bodies we want to capture keep moving from east to west due to Earth’s rotation. When we start getting into really long exposures of the sky to get the faintest details, the movement of our subjects causes them to blur. If you get to the point where you start running into this problem, it might be time to invest in a star tracker. A star tracker is a device that attaches to a camera and mounts on to the tripod. It then rotates with the stars and keeps the camera focused on the same spot you intend to capture, allowing you to get sharp, pin-point stars without ugly tails even with long exposures. This is a game changer in astrophotography.
Accessory recommendations: You’ll probably want a wide angle lens for this (between 10-20mm with a fast aperture of f/2.8 or lower is the sweet spot). This allows you to capture a lot of light, and a large chunk of the night sky.
Ok, do I just go to the roof and start shooting?
Not quite. Your astrophotography mileage varies based on your location. Light pollution from our cities severely hampers how clearly our eyes (and our cameras) can see the universe. Hence, we now have certain locations that are certified as ‘Dark Sky Reserves’ areas by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). These have exceptionally low light pollution and good conditions for stargazing—and have become go-to destinations for the growing astro tourism sector. You can find a list of certified Dark Sky Reserves on the IDA website.
Identifying the region as a dark sky reserve not only assures that the wonderful night sky in the region is preserved amidst increasing tourist activity, but will also help more people recognise the importance of having a pristine night sky. Besides educating people and motivating other areas to preserve their night skies, this move also helps ensure that the quality of data produced by the professional observatories situated in the Hanle region will be top-notch.
Hanle, Ladakh: India is setting up its own Dark Sky Reserve at Hanle, Ladakh. Hanle is a small village located about 270 km from Leh. At an altitude of 4,500 metres, it is also around 1,000 metres higher, so be prepared for proper acclimatisation if you plan to shoot the universe here. The area is famous for a 17th century monastery and the Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO), which is operated by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and features a stellar array of telescopes and scientific instruments.
If you’re thinking of giving astro tourism a try, Conde Nast Traveller has more on Hanle.
Other places to visit for a good glimpse of the universe: Spiti and Kaza (Himachal Pradesh), Bhimtal and Benital (Uttarakhand ), Jaisalmer (Rajasthan), and Rann of Kutch (Gujarat). Most of these places have fairly informal astro tourism ecosystems, but startups like Starscapes that work in this domain conduct events and experiences that ensure you’ll have a little professional guidance to help you along. If you’d prefer to go to foreign shores, Namibia, Chile, and the USA have some great stargazing spots.
I’m hooked, where can I learn more?
You could start with magazines like Astronomy, Sky and Telescope, and BBC Sky at Night. For a deeper dive, here’s a list of interesting resources to go through at your own pace.
- EarthSky is a geeky website which offers updates on the cosmos and our world.
- Space has the latest articles on astro news.
- Spaceweather has news and information about the Sun-Earth environment.
- Nebula Photos is a YouTube channel run by amateur astrophotographer—Nico Carver—who shares tutorials and reviews related to astrophotography.
- Also on YouTube, Peter Zelinka explains complex concepts in astrophotography in simple language.
The universe is a pretty cool place, have fun!