Sunday, May 9, 2010

Penny Pincher Astrophotography

Fully automated P&S cameras like this Olympus Stylus 550WP (review coming soon) can't do astrophotography, or can they?

Think "astrophotography" and one word, besides "cool" will come to people's minds: "expensive." While dSLRs are the mainstay of serious astrophotographers, sub $100 point and shoots can take some pretty good pictures, too. Just be sure to keep your expectations grounded in reality.
So, how is this done?
First, grab the tripod, there's no way around it. Now, onto the camera itself.

Second: consider the camera setup. Unlike dSLRs, cheap P&S cams probably have no RAW capability, so set the quality setting to finest quality JPEG. Downsizing a 12MP image to 2MP will do wonders for reducing noise, which will be very prevalent.

Third: set the white balance. With no RAW, there is no longer the shoot it and fix it later option: white balance must be right from the get go. Usually, 'auto' will work just fine for dusk. If you live in an area with a lot of lights around, 'tungsten' or 'incandescent' may be the better way to go, as this setting will introduce a bluish cast to offset all the yellow light. Play around to see what works.

Fourth: ISO is the next concern. To put it plainly, P&S cameras are rarely any good at ISO 400 or higher. To start, set the ISO at its base level, only bumping it up if the picture is underexposed.

Fifth: use the self timer. Even the cheapest P&S cams come with this function, which is normally 10 seconds. Be sure to enable the timer to avoid camera shake from hitting the shutter button.

Sixth (and most important) focus: what good is a picture if it's not properly focused? Some P&S cams allow for manual focus while others have focus settings. Either way, if your camera allows, set focus to 'infinity' to guarantee in-focus stars. If the camera has no manual focus options, you're not done. Instead, enable the self timer, focus on a distant object, then quickly swing the camera into the sky so that, when the shutter goes off, it will be taking a picture of the desired astronomical target.

Final considerations: experiment, play around with your camera to see what works best for you and don't forget to download software like Neatimage to clean up that ugly noise in your pictures.

As always, click for bigger versions
Daylight Moons are easy.

Twilight planets and Moons are still easy, but the closer to sunset, the better (Moon and Venus)

Having a well-lit terrestrial background to your astrophotos is good for focus and minimizing noise (good illustration of the Moon illusion)

Mostly sky shots can get noisy (Moon and Jupiter)

Neatimage can get a lot of that noise to go away (50% lum, 100% chroma eliminated)

So here it is, proof that astrophotography does not require expensive cameras to bring home the photos.

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