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How to Become An Astrophotographer

The field of astrophotography is now a vast discipline that has grabbed the interest of many amateur photographers. If you happen to be among the people wondering how to become an astrophotographer, here is what you will need:

How to become an Astrophotographer: Educational Requirements

While most forms of photography can be practiced as hobbies without formal degrees, astrophotography is one branch that requires a proper degree and professional training. This is especially important if you want to enter into a scientific endeavor related to Astronomy. For instance, if you intend to work for an astronomical research organization such as NASA, you will need to be highly qualified in terms of academics and higher education. The competition for jobs in such organizations is fierce, so better set yourself apart through professionalism and a proper educational backing.

You will need to have good grades all through high school and your undergraduate degree. Your major in college should be in the field of computer science, engineering or aeronautical sciences. That is typically the bare minimum required. To further excel in this field, a master’s degree or a Ph.D. in Astronomy or related fields would be required.

If your interest is just in the field of astrophotography, taking additional classes in astronomy or advanced photography might be of help to you.

Coursework in an Astrophotography Class

If you do take up the subject formally, following are the topics that you can expect to cover in class:

  • Ancient astronomy
  • Motions in the universe
  • Understanding the telescope
  • How to use a telescope
  • Understanding light
  • How to see in the dark
  • Space and its constituents
  • The moon and other planets
  • Studying the stars
  • Galaxies and the universe
  • The milky way

In addition to coursework related to astronomy, you will also be taught the basics of photography and the usage of equipment involved in this kind of photography. You will need to learn how to use hefty lenses and find the perfect timing to get the shot you need.

What do Astrophotographers do?

Astrophotographers take pictures of anything that is not on the Earth, but out in space. Even though it sounds like simple photographing of the sky, Astrophotography is actually a very technical and complicated field. Getting the perfect shot requires a lengthy process dotted with sleepless nights, hefty cameras and a keen eye. Here are a few things to bear in mind with astrophotography:

How to take Astrophotos?

Remember that the Earth is in constant movement, making the stars, moon and planets appear to be moving across the sky. The lighting is going to be extremely dim, so you will need to use long exposure times to gather enough light. There are two ways to go about taking astrophotographs.

Ignore the Earth’s rotation: The result of this sounds obvious – star trail images. The Earth rotates on its axis at about ½ degrees per minute. This will cause the stars to appear to rotate accordingly. If you set the camera on a fixed tripod, the final photograph will show stars with their trails. The longer you leave the shutter open, the longer the trails will be.  

Tips to take a star-trail photo:

  • Use a well-built tripod and keep it fixed in one place
  • Use a wide-angle lens
  • Select a medium-speed film or an ISO of 400-800. This would be helpful in capturing even the dimmer stars
  • Set the aperture to f/5.6 to f/11. This will help reduce the glow in the sky due to nearby city lights
  • Make sure you choose a dark location that is as far away from the city as possible
  • Make sure your camera batteries are fully charged

Don’t Ignore the Earth’s Rotation: If you want to capture an image where stars appear as they look in the night sky without any trails, you can do that as well. You can leave the shutter open for a short time, with a wide angle lens. The stars will still have trails, but they will be so small that you won’t be able to tell the difference. However, with this technique, only the brightest stars will show clearly.

Tips to take non-trail photos of stars:

  • The wider the lens you use, the better it will be. For instance, with a 28mm lens, you can expose for nearly 20 seconds without any trails appearing. On the other hand, with a 14mm lens, you can expose for 30 to 40 seconds.
  • You might want to include some interesting add-ons in the image, something interesting in the foreground such as trees or mountains.
  • Use a sturdy tripod with a remote release system

Job Opportunities for Astrophotographers

Astrophotographers are specialists who are usually employed by private corporations or universities that are involved in business with local, state or federal governments. Direct employment is also possible, but the job market for this field is quite competitive.

According to the New York Film Academy, astronomers earn anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 per year, however astrophotography is usually pursued by unpaid enthusiasts.

Comparing Salaries of Various Types of Photographers: A Comparative Analysis

Types of Photographers Salary

Astrophotographer

              N/A

Medical Photographer

                $41,000 - $59,000

School Photographer

               $24,000

Fine Art Photographer

               $46,000 - $69,000

Wedding Photographer

               $15,000 - $100,000

War Photographer

              $17,000 - $63,000

*Salary statistics are taken from the New York Film Academy. The information was posted on the Academy’s webpage on September 17, 2014.

Sky Events to Capture in 2017

Keep a look out for these six must-see sky events for 2017:

  1. February 26  –  Annular Eclipse
  2. March 29      –   Mercury, Mars, Moon in a neat triangle
  3. April 10        –    Moon meets Jupiter in a close pairing
  4. August 21     -    Total Solar Eclipse
  5. November 13  –  Venus joins Jupiter
  6. December 13  -  Geminid Meteors

Keep your cameras at the ready, tripods set in the right places at the right time, because these will be amazing meteorological events for you to capture as an Astrophotographer!

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