Shooting for the Stars. An Astrophotography Primer

I thought I’d stay on the photography theme a little while longer and touch on a subject I have been playing with off and on for a while now, and that is astrophotography.

I first approached this at the beginning of the millennium when I still lived on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. I had interviewed someone who as it turned out lived close by and was somewhat famous in this area of photography and videography, Steve Massey.

It Started With a Telescope

This got me all fired up and so I went out and spent serious money on a telescope and a film based Minolta SLR camera, and spent many happy hours shooting images and video of the Moon primarily.

When I moved back to Western Australia and down to the deep forests of the south-west of Western Australia, I upgraded the telescope and also abandoned the Minolta in favour of a Canon 5DS dSLR.

The absolute lack of ambient (and therefore interfering) light was offset by the amount of cloud we used to get, so the actual telescope time was minimal. And then a particularly ridiculous accident I want go into knocked the telescope and its tripod over rendering the focussing mechanism impossible to use.

Shortly after I moved back to civilisation 200Km south of Perth, and with COVID hitting decided to try and revive my damaged telescope.

The spare parts were available, but all things being what they were it took nearly 9 months to actually get them here!

In the interim, I discovered a little gizmo called the MSM, or “Move-Shoot-Move”.

And its brilliant.


A little bit of science is needed here to fully explain what the MSM does and why.

When you first get a telescope, you suddenly became Aacutely aware that the Earth moves through space, and pretty damn quickly at that. It first struck home when I finally managed to get an image of the Moon in the ‘scope that was nice and sharp. I had to go inside for something another – only gone a minute or two – and when I came back out, my image had gone!

Of course, the Earth is ripping through space at something like 500 metres per second or around 1600Km / hour at the equator. Hence the image of the Moon is moving across the field of view of the telescope at the same rate, so you get about a minute depending on the magnification of the telescope.

If you are lucky enough to be able to get, say Jupiter or Saturn in sight AND focus, then you have mere seconds.

But to get decent still shots, which require lots of light, you need more than this, so there is the dilemma.

You can buy mechanisms for telescopes to follow the earth’s rotation and also lock in on celestial objects, but this tends to get very expensive for the hobbyist

So, enter the Move-Shoot-Move (MSM).


msm-polar-aligned-side-v1-2The MSM is a small black box that mounts onto a tripod. There, that was easy.

But there is a lot more to it than that of course. You see, once it is charged up, and via various mounts, a camera attached – either DSLR or Mirrorless – the inbuilt motor rotates so that when you have locked onto a subject in the night sky, it will always stay in place as the camera rotates with the Earth.

You set the camera using either its inbuilt intervalometer or an add on one and set the aperture and ISO accordingly. If all goes well, you get shots like these.


An intervalometer is either an inbuilt function of the camera – and many have it – to tell the shutter to stay open for a specific period of time, beyond the normal 1/500th or 1/20th sec for example. To get shots like shown here, shutter times of up to 10 minutes or more are used.

The smart ones can also be set for multiple shots that are timed and other functions.

2022-12-14_16-26-48If your camera does not possess an internal intervalometer, go to your favourite camera store and ask for an external one that suits your make / model. An example of one I can recommend is the Hahnel Captur Timer Kit from  Leederville Cameras.

And while you can fluke it and get a great shot with a single image, those that are REALLY good at this stuff take many, many images of the subject in order to get as much data as possible, and then using specialist software, much of it free, “stack” these together to create a single composite image.

Polar South

Of course, there is a catch, sort of. You’ll recall when I stated the Earth’s movement rate, I was careful to clarify that this speed is “at the equator”. The Earth rotates at different rates depending on where you are, and so the MSM needs to be calibrated in order to get the exact setting.

In the Northern hemisphere this is relatively easy as they have a celestial body in the sky (where else I suppose?) called the Pole Star which to all intents and purposes is based exactly at True North. By calibrating the MSM, using a laser scope that comes with the system, to the Pole Star, you are good to go.

In the Southern Hemisphere we don’t have that luxury, and while there are ways to do this with methods using other stars, these are relatively complicated. So, there is a far better way, and it has added bonuses too.


2022-12-14_16-24-14I have mentioned the PhotoPills app before in stories, in order to calculate sun and moon rise times and locations in order to get the right positioning and timing to get specific shots.

But another piece of magic PhotoPills does is let you align the MSM quickly and easily to correctly set it for shooting deep space shots and stars. A combination of the inbuilt compass and a virtual reality overlay, with your smartphone attached via a mount to your MSM, lets you align perfectly to Polar South by simply lining up cross hairs to a central target.

With that done, you can then mount your camera, adjust the appropriate settings for aperture, ISO and the intervalometer and you are good to go.

In theory.

Final Tips

2022-12-15_15-21-30Of course, to get the perfect shot takes lots of practice and patience. I’d recommend a few things to make life easier.

  1. Initially don’t be too ambitious. Just get some shots to get a feel for what you are doing and learn what settings may be best. And make notes, or better, shoot RAW so the camera settings are embedded into the meta of each image
  2. To learn where planets, stars, constellations, asteroids, meteor showers and other stuff up there are, download a copy of the free program Stellarium for your PC, Mac, tablet whatever. It is absolutely bulging with information and can also create virtual skies based on locations and times.
  3. Get yourself a headband light that has the red-light option. This way, you’ll be able to see what you are doing but not stuff up your night sight.
  4. Use a decent tripod. The one thing you do not want to happen is for your camera to move in any way at all. I use a Miller Solo75 and can highly recommend it.
  5. The MSM is rated to a specific weight so this limits the lens you can use. Even my Canon 5DS with an 80-200mm is too heavy, so these days I use a Fujifilm X-T20 with a 16mm f/2.8 which is pretty close to what it appears the experts in the field use. But even if you have a base camera with a 28mm or something similar, you can still get some breathtaking shots.
  6. Apart from no camera movement (apart from that given by the MSM of course) the other thing that is imperative is focus. You must have your subject in absolutely pinpoint focus. Some cameras allow you to zoom into the image on the LCD for focussing, so if you have this use it. Otherwise focus to infinity but pull it back just a fraction. Some people place a piece of tape to lock the lens in place once they have that sweet spot worked out.
  7. Learn your camera. Shooting stars and planets etc is NOT the place for “A” for “Automatic!”
  8. Keep away from as much external light splatter as you can. The darker you can get it the better. Avoid streetlights, light from windows, car headlights and even the light of the Moon as much as possible.
  9. Look at as many YouTube tutorials, read as many online articles and so on as you can. There is always something to learn. There are some great tutorials on the MSM web site as a starting point, and you’ll also find some really good YouTube channels you’ll like. I started with this one.
  10. Above all be patient. Hopefully you’ll jag a great shot within your second or third attempts, but if you haven’t, just keep trying as when you do, it’s worth the wait and effort trust me!

Shooting the Total Eclipse: A Video Tutorial

Just after I wrote my piece on shooting tomorrow’s eclipse, the folk at PhotoPills released a step-by-step video on how to shoot it.

  • How to plan a total lunar eclipse.
  • All the equipment you need to photograph the eclipse.
  • The camera settings you need.
  • Where to focus.
  • And how to photograph the total lunar eclipse step by step.
  • How to plan a total lunar eclipse.
  • All the equipment you need to photograph the eclipse.
  • The camera settings you need.
  • Where to focus.
  • And how to photograph the total lunar eclipse step by step.

Photographing / Videoing the Total Eclipse Tomorrow. How to get that Killer Shot!

You may have heard that tomorrow night (Tuesday 8th Nov) in Australia we’ll have the pleasure of a total lunar eclipse. This happens when the Earth gets between the Sun and the Moon, thus cutting of most of the light that we normally see reflect off the Moon’s surface. What happens is that only a bit of the red wavelength manages to sneak through, and so we get the famed “blood Moon”.

Many people will have their cameras, camcorders and smartphones primed for the event, but the trick is knowing exactly when it will happen. If at all.

For example, here in the SW of Western Australia, it will be between 5pm and 7:30pm, and the sun won’t have even set, so we’ll see, well, bugger all.

Conversely, in Hobart, Taswegians will have the spectacle between 8pm-ish and nearly midnight so will have a ripper show!

So, how do you calculate exactly what time you can get that perfect photo or video, no matter you live in Dubbo or downtown Cooper Pedy?

I first started to (again) dabble in photo and video astronomy just before the pandemic, and over the ensuing period I found a brilliant app called PhotoPills that is sort of a Swiss Army knife for all things astro.

It will calculate for you the exact time of celestial events (sunrise, sunset, moonrise, planet rise, meteor showers etc) for any known location. So, say you want to get the sunrise coming up over the lighthouse at Barrenjoey Headland or Byron Bay, it will work out EXACTLY where you need to be location wise, and at what time to be there.

For camera alignment to get star trails, or aligning a tracking device like the MSM, it will quickly allow you to set up the equipment, so you don’t get errors with streaking and so on.

It has a whole bunch of other stuff too such as aids in working out depth of field, field of view, hyperfocal tables, exposure and much, much more.

Back to the lunar eclipse planning though …

To work this out for your location, there are a number of easy steps to follow using PhotoPills.

  1. Open up the app (Android or iOS) and choose Planner
  2. You may be asked whether you want Precise or Approximate locations to be calculated. Use precise
  3. A Google Earth image will open with a series of coloured lines intersecting at your location and a stack of statistical and other info at the top and bottom.
  4. At the bottom right-hand corner of the map is a Plus sign and an icon showing two diamond shapes. This latter is the Map Settings button. Tap this to open and then under Map Layers, choose Eclipse. This will open the Solar and Lunar eclipses calendar.
  5. Find the date (8/11/2022) and tap on that and then return to the map. This will now be set at the exact date / time of the eclipse.
  6. You can now zoom the map out and see all the eclipse information on the map.
  7. Next, swipe the top panel (above the map) to the left until you see the Eclipse data.
  8. The lines on the map show the stages of the eclipse of the Moon as it travels around the Earth. As you can see there are areas where they will not see the eclipse at all (African continent, Alaska etc).
  9. Let’s assume you want to see the times and other information on the eclipse from a location not where you are. To do this, tap the load button and enter the location. I’ve chosen Port Hedland. The map is now reset with all the Lunar eclipse info set to Port Hedland.
  10. You’ll notice that the lines on the map have different labels – P1, U1, U2, U3 and so on. These relate to the phases of the eclipse – the Penumbral and Umbral. The data above the map matches these phases as the Moon moves through the eclipse stages. So in the case of Port Hedland, the eclipse starts at around 3:10pm when the Moon starts to enter the Earth’s shadow, total eclipse is at 7:00pm exactly and it’s all over at 9:57pm.
  11. Both the top panel and bottom panel can be manipulated by taps and holds to see the eclipse info at different times.
  12. The thin blue line next to the thicker one shows the actual path of the Moon.

All the steps above now give you all the data you need to actually plan the shot / video.

Now here comes the clever part of PhotoPills. Or one of them anyway.

Screenshot_20221107-131939_PhotoPillsThe app has a built in Augmented Reality system (the AR button down the bottom), Tap that, and the data will overlay the scene shown in your device’s camera and show you EXACTLY where the Moon will be in the sky. You have available the horizon and a compass plus the position (height)n of the Moon letting you set the camera up precisely for any required shot.

Tie all this information together, and you can now plan your shoot precisely. Say for example you want to catch the total eclipse over the top of the Sydney Opera House, or Ayres Rock – sorry Uluru – then you know exactly where you need to be, at what time and the position of the camera.

It does take a little experimentation and playing with PhotoPills. It is one of those programs whose depths you may never plumb to the fullest. But in the process, you will certainly have the ability and wherewithal’s to get those killer photos you see in the likes of national geographic etc.

At the PhotoPills website, there is a whole bunch of tutorials to walk you through various scenarios too and to get full use of the app. They also have a free e-Book you can download.

Tip: A great skill to learn for this sort of stuff is compositing in Adobe Photoshop. This image by Jose A Hervas was created using that functionality.

Photopills example

PhotoPills costs $9.99 (bargain!)  and is available from Google Play and the App Store.

No GoPro? Or DJI Pocket 2? Or Drone? Timelapse Video: Using a Pluto Trigger

I have known a gentleman by the name of Chris Oaten for a very long time. He’s even written stories for me from time-to-time. Chris makes his main living doing timelapse photography, and dare I say, he has few, if any, people in this country who in any way share his skill.

The results he creates are breathtaking and can be seen here.

To get to this level, Chris has many, many dollars invested in technology, but while you may drool over his work, the actual technical basics of timelapse to create video are quite simple. (Of course, getting to Chris’ level also requires a great deal of skill and knowledge of photography and lighting).

You take a series of still shots over a period of time and with a delay between the shots. You then put ’em all together a play them back at a faster frame rate.

If you have one of the later GoPros for example, that functionality is built in, as it is in the DJI Pocket 2 and DJI drones. But if you yearn   to create timelapse imagery and don’t possess one of these, then the Pluto Trigger may fit the bill for you.

I did a First Look review some weeks back and you can read that here. This afternoon, with an hour up my sleeve, I decided to have a crack at a quick timelapse, and this is the result. Basically it is 240 frames taken at 5 second intervals over 20 minutes. The end result JPGs are then put together in DaVinci Resolve and rendered out.

The camera is a Canon 5DS mounted on a Miller Air 75 Solo tripod. Camera settings were ISO100 / F16 / 1/60th of a second.

The Pluto Trigger does a LOT more than this of course. Check out that First Looks to see.

This could be the most fascinating $200 you’ll ever spend. And the most rewarding. A First Look.

Way back when, when I was editing Videocamera magazine, there was a distinct line between the subjects we covered, and this carried over into Australian Videocamera when I struck out on my own.

That is, there was little blur between camcorder reviews, editing software reviews, special effects creation, audio and so on.

Today this has all changed with a swathe of new tools available to make life so much easier. Take something like the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini Pro which not that long ago in technical terms, would have cost $1000s and in fact, required a number of different devices to get the same result.

The same could be said for the humble printer that evolved into a multi-function contraption as technology evolved and things got, well, smarter.

Today we have a multitude of smart things that couldn’t have even been imagined 25 years ago. Arthur C. Clarke said it best many years ago when he stated “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

So an amateur photographer back not so long ago would have been astounded by your best little black box I have been looking at today. It is called a Pluto Trigger.

In conjunction with a dSLR camera, what it can do is simply astonishing. And for the price, mind boggling.

I want to preface this by saying I have yet to fire the thing in anger as they say. If there is one single drawback to the Pluto Trigger, it is that the documentation is a little lacking. In fact out of the box, all you get is a 2-sided quick start slip of paper that is simply a pointer to the smartphone app you need and how to get to the main menu. It doesn’t even explain what the items in the box are; why is there a laser in there? What are the various cables for and so on?

There is an online manual, but that is also not in the way I prefer a manual to be (your mileage of course may vary here). You can find that at .

Consequently, to get to know how to setup and operate the little beast, I have spent the day trawling online videos and finally came across a set designed specifically for the Pluto Trigger, with each going through a feature of the unit’s shooting style as well as a setup video.

These have been put together by an Australian photographer by the name of Gill (as in Gillian) Fry and are very comprehensive indeed. You can see her full suite at 

So just what does the Pluto Trigger do that is so gob smacking I hear you ask.

I remember an episode of Midsomer Murders when at the scene of the crime Barnaby asks Fleur the pathologist “what happened to the victim (and give me the short version)”.

“He’s dead” she says dead pan faced.

So in that light, the Pluto Trigger fires the shutter button the camera it is connected to via a cable.

But it’s what can cause it to fire the shutter button is what is so brilliant.

If you take the simplest, that of timelapse. In the app (connected to the Pluto Trigger by Bluetooth) you simply tell it how many shots to take and at what interval. There is a bunch of presets such as Sunrise, Sunset, Night Sky and so on, but you can override everything or simply create your own settings. To give you an idea of flexibility, the maximum duration is 99 hours and the maximum number of shots is 99,999.

But then you get into the setting menu and the other options are as I say, astounding.

Amongst many, many are options such as Star Trail, Sound, Voice, Light, Motion and Infrared. But my two favourites so far are Lightning and Laser.

With Lightning, a sensor picks up the light intensity difference when the lightning bolt starts and then fires the trigger. Your shutter speed will dictate how much of the strike you get – Gill recommends 1/15th of a second. You have to play around with sensitivities to get things “just right”, but simply amazing results are possible as shown on the website of Anthony Lombardi –

Laser as the name suggests, uses the laser that comes in the box. To set it up, you point it at the laser light receptor LED on the front of the Pluto Trigger. This creates a beam (duh!) and when this is broken, the shutter is triggered.

By careful setting (and experimentation) of delays, height of dropping an object, shutter speed and so on, then some dazzling shots of breaking glass, splashes etc can be obtained.

In fact for a lot of things the Pluto Trigger can do, there is no need for dedicated high speed cameras as the average dSLR is quite capable.

I admit the Pluto Trigger may not be for everyone. But the possibilities certainly get my creative juices flowing and for the price of AUD$178 + whatever cable your camera needs it’s not about to break the bank to see if it works for you.

I got mine direct from Pluto Trigger at

I aim to actually play with it over the next few days and will publish the results I get. I suspect this will be a lot of fun!

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First Look: PhotoPills APP with Augmented Reality for photographers / videographers.

PhotoPills is one of theose rare pieces of software – available for iOS and Android – that anyone interested in landscape, sunset, sunrise, timelapse or astro photography / videography should have.

As I have written over the last few weeks I am investigating (again) the fascinating world of astrophotography and videography. My MSM Star Tracker unit turned up last week and I am going through all its documentation and a myriad of online tutorials to come to grips with that.

A major issue is that to get those glorious shots you see of the Milky Way, star clusters and so on, you have to align the MSM and your camera to a polar location. In the Northern hemisphere they have the star Polaris, which as the name suggests, is directly (near as dammit anyway) at the North Pole, but here in the Southern Hemisphere it is not that simple.

Which leads me neatly on to an amazing app I have found that is not only a major bonus – nay necessity – for those star chasers among us, but will also be a huge boon for landscape, timelapse, sunset, sunrise and other photographers / videographers.

Available for both iOS and Android, PhotoPills is a glorious and elegant piece of software that lets you plan your shoot ahead of time.

For example, let’s say you are on the coast and there is a rocky outcrop offshore that has a tunnel running through it allowing you to see the horizon on the other side through the hole. Now on the west coast where I am, the sun sets over the sea, so theoretically it is possible to get a shot / video of that moment when the sun is visible through the “tunnel” as it sets in the Golden Hour of light at sunset.

With PhotoPills you can calculate exactly when this will happen and more importantly, where you need to be to get the perfect shot!

Using a combination of widgets and apps within the app, you can plan all sorts of shoots of the sun, moon, stars, galaxies, the Milky Way and more, calculate exposure times with various filters in differing light, work out optimum depth of field settings, calculate parameters for timelapse shots and much, much more.

My initial use was employing PhotoPills Augmented Reality system to overlay the star positions at any point in time to correctly calculate the south pole to align the MSM Star Tracker, and it was while doing this I discovered all these other major benefits.


PhotoPills costs around USD$10 and is available in the APP store or on Google Play.

For more information, go to

Watch the video below for an example of PhotoPills in action.

Shooting the Cosmos -Setting up an MSM Star Tracker Part 1

I have always had a fascination for Space. Even before the first Moon landing, as a kid I had tens of books on it and used to draw with a compass and pencil images and diagrams of the solar system. I even made a rocket “console” out of cardboard boxes and images cut from a magazine as tele-screens.

Then of course Dr Who came along, and I avidly lapped up every single episode (I still have 99% of them on DVD from the very first in 1963!)

And being the son of a photographer, there was never any doubt that I would also follow my Dad’s footsteps in that area, although I doubt he would have envisaged video being in the mix.

(One of the great regrets of life was that when my dad passed away, death duties were still a thing in Australia, and in order to pay them my Mum had to sell my Dad’s prized Leica M2 and a pair of Rolliecord cameras).

Anyway, it wasn’t until much later in life that I married my love of Space with photography. In around 2002 when I lived in Sydney, I spent a few hundred on a Skywatcher telescope and got hold of an older Minolta SLR (film not digital) and played around with it for a while.

Then of course as it does, life intervened and it was only 18 months ago that I resurrected the interest with a brand new telescope, a Skywatcher 130/650 reflector. Sadly, a bit of misadventure stepped in, and the telescope was knocked over damaging the focussing unit. Things being as they are, it has taken 9 months + to get a replacement part (thanks heaps for persisting on my behalf Tasco Australia) and so we are now back up and running.

Stepping up a notch, I joined a few of the Astrophotography Facebook groups and was staggered at the quality of the imagery these people could get from their own backyards! And this led me to a company called MSM.

Some background is needed here before continuing as to why this is important.

As we all know, the Earth spins on its axis, and so do the moons and planets as well as the solar system and even the galaxies. This rotation is why the Sun and Moon rises and sets.

So, whilst photographing the Moon is not so much of an issue as it is bright and you can get by with a short shutter speed, for the planets and stars this is a different beast altogether. Due to the usual dimness of the subject by comparison, you need longer shutter speeds and wider apertures.

But because of the Earth’s rotation, this causes the planet, star, galaxy or whatever to “drift” across the field of view thus giving star trails and not a sharp focus.

This is where MSM comes in as they make a rotation device that you attach to your tripod and then mount your camera to it. With suitable calibration, this will then counter the Earth’s rotation allowing you to “track” celestial objects and therefore in theory, get perfectly sharp imagery of the planets, stars, galaxies and nebulae.

Of course there is a bit more to it than that, with other factors coming into play and also the need for some compositing techniques and specialist software – called stacking – to get the shots like you see here.

But all that comes after assembling the MSM tracker, getting it on the tripod, adding the camera and aligning it.

Here’s the assembly part.

Step 1 was to ascertain how I was going to mount it. As you can see there is the main MSM unit (the rotating tracker), a “wedge” bracket and a “ball head” bracket plus a few adaptors, cables and other bits and pieces.

Initially I mounted the MSM to the tripod plate and added the wedge to the top of that. You get a few thread adaptors in the kit so everything can screw together OK.

The problem here was that the adaptors threads were a fraction short and so the wedge wouldn’t screw down far enough thus leaving it at a 45 degree angle.

A quick message in the MSM Facebook group straightened me out; I need to mount to wedge to the tripod plate, add the MSM to the wedge and then the ball head to the MSM.

Now that that was all assembled, it just remains to add the camera and connect it.

Now that part is completed, In Part 2 I’ll explain how I aligned it and why you need to. Because we are in the Southern Hemisphere and don’t have a “Pole Star” this is a different process to our northern neighbours. If you want to jump ahead, pre-cursor this by getting an app called PhotoPills (Android and iOS).