Astrophotography camping opens up new opportunities for camera-owners, giving you the chance to escape the light pollution created by densely populated areas. And once you've set up camp in the wilderness there are many night sky wonders to discover, either through some of the best telescopes around or behind the lens of your trusty camera. Here, we've pulled together a complete beginner's guide to astrophotography camping so that you can be well prepared for your next outing.
Astrophotography: The basics
If you're looking for a proper introduction, then our astrophotography for beginners article does a great job in outlining the basics of the practice. But in brief, what we want to do with astrophotography is to maximize the available light during a long exposure to bring out the detail in the night sky.
You’ll have to have the right kit (which we’ll talk a bit more about later), as it’s a bit harder to do this with a compact, film or bridge camera, but if you have a good mirrorless or DSLR setup, and know the basics of the manual mode, you can start to get excellent results quite quickly. Full-frame or crop-sensor cameras are both fine, and we’ll talk a little bit more about lenses further down the article. But don’t be put off by all the gear, it’s easier than you think to get going!
Although the world might seem like a bustling, crowded place, there are still many areas you can go quite legitimately to camp away from lights and other interference. To get the best results when finding a spot to pitch, you’ll need to get as far away as possible from artificial lighting, also aiming to find fairly unobstructed views of the night sky and an excellent vista with which to frame your images. The International Dark Sky Project is a great resource and you can find some great locations and astrophotography inspiration on this site.
There are plenty of campsites out there offering excellent astrophotography opportunities, but if you’re pitching in a wild camp spot, ensure you’re allowed to or ask the land owner’s permission first.
What camera kit do I need to get the best results?
Backpacks and tripods
Some thought will need to be given to how to carry your equipment when out camping, and we’d recommend investing in a good camera backpack from the likes of LowePro, Vanguard or Manfrotto. A top tip: make sure you buy one with external clips or holders - you’ll find that to get any results from astrophotography you’ll need a good tripod and you’ll be unable to put that in the body of the bag itself.
Speaking of tripods, you’ll have to balance a sturdy enough unit with the ability to carry it if you’re camping, so we’d recommend going to some camera stores and trying them out for size. Remember, what can seem light initially can quickly feel heavier when you’re combining it with carrying tents, sleeping bags and extra clothes! There are some excellent options from the likes of Manfrotto and Vanguard, who also offer carbon fibre options that are much lighter if weight is a worry. (The Manfrotto BeFree Advanced series is excellent, as the tripods are all super lightweight and compact.)
Torches and cameras
Make sure you pack two head torches, or at least spare batteries. We’ve been on regular camping trips where one has stopped working or the batteries we’ve put in one unit are less than adequate. Get one that has a red light mode - not only does it retain your night vision to see the stars, it also means you can ‘paint’ with the light during a long exposure.
Turning our attention to cameras - all you need is a good body (as we say, full frame or crop sensors are both fine) that has the ability to manually control aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Lenses are a bit of a different ball game, and a bit more of a fine art to get right, as well as being somewhat down to personal choice, but again we’d recommend something that doesn’t break the bank, isn’t too heavy to carry and still produces excellent results. You’ll want it to be as wide-angled as you can get and something like a 14mm, 18mm or 24mm should be fine. As fast as you can afford is good, so look for lower f-numbers.
Camping equipment and advice
Everything comes down to efficiency of equipment and planning. If you know where you’re going, have a set route, adequate navigation equipment and enough people aware of what you’re intending to do, your attention can turn to the logistics of the trip.
By now you should have a decent camera bag setup with your equipment, and if it has toggles, loops or straps on the exterior, you can affix your tent and sleeping bag. If you’re really wanting to get into the wild and make the most of the dark sky, you’ll need to commit to a fairly decent hike, so try to choose a lightweight tent and sleeping setup from the likes of MSR or Sierra Designs - we’ve been using their tents for years and enjoy their simplicity and ease of use.
Make sure you pack plenty of water, good ‘offline’ maps and enough lighting. When it comes to staying warm during the night (where in many dark sky environments temperatures can slip well below zero), layers are your friend, so merino wool under layers, thermal mid layers and good down jackets will keep you cosy. Look for a 4-season sleep bag, again ideally filled with down, so you can stay comfortable during the whole night. Staying off the ground is also important, and there are luckily many companies that offer backcountry-specialized, lightweight blow-up thermal layers to separate you from the freezing ground. It may take some time to experiment with getting the right equipment for you - but that’s part of the fun.
Astrophotography is easier than you think to get into, and when combining it with getting into the backcountry and the wilderness, it can really open up the opportunity to see the night sky, and your photography, from a different perspective. The astrophotography community is also a huge one across the US, Europe and the rest of the world, so we’d really recommend sharing your captures as widely as you can!