Learning Astrophotography

An unexpected opportunity to learn astrophotography in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness of New Mexico.

A starry night in the Bisti Badlands

An Unexpected Adventure

I don’t normally take road trips with strangers, but in this instance, I’m sure glad I did. A fellow female photographer reached out to my women’s photography group on Facebook in need of a last minute person to fill a space on an astrophotography tour to the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness. I had been wanting to visit this location for years, and learning astrophotography was something I had been planning to do. So a few days later, I hopped in a car with a new friend on an 8 hour road trip. It was an amazing experience!

It turns out Cristina and I had a lot in common. We both served in the military, loved travel and photography, and just clicked in a way that doesn’t happen often. Lucky for me, she has learned a lot about astrophotography and was willing to teach me her craft. She had booked a fantastic Navajo guide to show us around the beautiful hoodoos of the Bisti Badlands and I am so glad I took a leap of faith and went on this trip!

We had Kailo from Navajo Tours USA as our guide through this vast wilderness and I seriously would not recommend visiting this place without them! This is the desert, it is an extreme environment and it is very easy to get disoriented amongst the hoodoos. We spent two nights hiking and photographing different areas of the wilderness with Kailo. We saw so much beauty and learned so much from him.

Beginner Astrophotography Essentials

I learned a lot from my new friend but I still very much consider myself a beginner in astrophotography. If you are interested in learning astrophotography, I am including a list of the very basics to help get you started.

  • DSLR or mirrorless camera (and basic knowledge of operating in manual mode)
  • Wide angle lens
  • Tripod
  • Remote shutter release (or use timer delay in camera)
  • Extra camera battery
  • Headlamp (red light is helpful)
  • A dark sky location
  • Astrophotography software (free versions available)
  • Patience!

You will see a lot of expensive items listed in astrophotography articles and that’s fine. But if you want to try it out first before making a large investment, you can get started with this basic list. I will link to the book Cristina shared with me in the next section, it was very helpful in explaining the basics. I do not consider myself a teacher, so I will leave the instruction to the people that have taken time to write books and devote their careers to astrophotography.

My Astrophotography Setup

I had both a Sony a7iii and a Nikon D810 for my first night photography adventure, both performed well. I used my Sony with a remote shutter release for the astro images and my Nikon for the landscape and sunset images. The only reason I chose the Sony for the night photos is that I was able to rent a wide angle lens for it on short notice. My tripod was a Promaster Specialist series that I had recently purchased. You do not need an expensive tripod with all the bells and whistles, but you do need one that is sturdy enough to hold the weight of your camera and lens combination. During the day we used the PhotoPills app on our phones to scout locations that would align well with the milky way once it got dark. If you haven’t used this app, it’s a great tool for photographers and inexpensive to purchase.

I tried a combination of techniques that I learned from my friend and the book she shared with me. I did shoot some single image long exposures of the stars and processed them with Lightroom and Photoshop. I also took multiple exposures of the stars and combined them with a long exposure noise reduction image of the foreground. This process is not as difficult as it sounds and there are free star stacking programs available online to help you combine the images. I waited way too long to learn this genre of photography because I mistakenly believed it was too difficult, don’t be like me!

The key takeaway for me as I learn this craft is patience. Remember, the stars are only visible in dark areas when the weather cooperates. And sometimes a few clouds can add an extra layer of interest to your images! So find a photography buddy, pick a beautiful location that you can photograph and enjoy before the sun sets, and just appreciate being out in nature with your camera!

If you have any questions about my experience or just want to chat photography, meet me in the comments! Happy shooting and stargazing!

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