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.

New Month and new things to snap / video

If like me you have become a fan of looking up at the Moon, planets, stars, galaxies and all that other stuff up there, the month of March gives a wonderful opportunity to discover and get imagery.

For example, according to PhotoPills (read on if you don;t what PhotoPills is) in March, The Zodiacal Light, the Milky Way and Galactic Centre, Venus at greatest eastern elongation, the Full Moon, the conjunction of Venus and Mars, the March equinox, the conjunction of the Moon and Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn, the Messier Marathon, Sunrises, Sunsets, Star Trails and more will be available to shoot.

Here is some more info:

Two invaluable things you need to get the best, especially for the beginner (of which I classifiy mysself one) are a pair of apps designed specifically for these purposes.

PhotoPills I reviewed a few weeks back, and for working out what to photo / video and when, assist in setting up equipment and a zillion other reasons is definately a must. It is available for both Android and iOS and if you missed it first time around, here is a video explaining PhotoPills far better than I can in words.

To get Photopills, go to the App Store or Play Store, or mouse over to for more info

The second app, and one I have been using for some years is Stellarium and this is truly an amazing piece of software. Even more amazing is that is free.

To digress a little, my favourite set of books is “The Foundation Series” by Isaac Asimov, and in there Asimov describes what he called “The Galactic Lens”, a 3D view of the known galaxy available from any point. At the time of writing, to acheive such a thing was mind boggling and probably beyond the comprehension of anyone to actually implement due to the massive processing power and memory needed by the scales of the time. Remember back then, what few “computers” they had were all driven by valves, not chips (Look up “vacuum valve” kiddies on that new fangled Goggle search thingy) and memory was measured in bytes not gigabytes or terabytes. Hard to fathom I know, but its true.

In essence, Stellarium is the Galactic Lens, but not just giving a view of the galaxy(ies), also housing a complete database on every object known in the sky above (see the screen shot above. In this one, one of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites has been selected, but you could click on any star, planet, meteorite, comet, moon etc and get the relevent information).

With Stellarium you set a home point and immediatelyy have access to the night (or day) sky in real time. There are heaps of features available and I am still learning. To get it, and its available for Windows, MacOS and LINUX, and in a mobile form for iOS and Android, go to

If you have been put off thinking getting those fantastic star trails, images of deep space objects or even sharp photos or videos Saturn, Mars, Jupiter etc is all too hard, think again. Better still, give it a crack. You do NOT need fancy expensive equipment!