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February 11, 2015

Shoot for the Stars: Jenifer Hanen on how to be an astrophotographer

Capturing spectacular photos of the night sky is no easy task. But luckily for us, expert astrophotographer Jenifer Hanen is here with a helpful tutorial that will have you shooting for the stars in no time.


If you’ve ever tried to snap a photo of a full moon or a starry sky, you know that the photos often don’t come out quite as nice as you’d hoped. But don’t be discouraged – with a little guidance and perseverance, the sky’s the limit for you and your Lumia. Our own MVC judge Jenifer Hanen has a few reassuring words, promising that “You can take good sky photos with practice, patience, and just your Lumia.” Now that’s what we love to hear!

We recently talked with Jenifer about her love for astrophotography, and now she’s back to share her knowledge about shooting the night skies with all of us in an in-depth tutorial series. The first in the series tells you everything you need to know about getting started. So get your Lumias at the ready, because you’re about to learn how to become a talented astrophotographer from someone who knows a thing or two about shooting for the stars. Over to you, Jenifer.

What should I do first?

A little research on what is in the sky right now before you exit the building will do you a world of good. Here are a few tips that can help you get started before you even step outdoors.

For your computer, get Stellarium and make sure you download the Solar System plugin with comets.
Stellarium will let you see what is in the sky, where it is, and more importantly, whether you’ll be able to see it in your location with the level of light pollution in your area.

Get the Star Chart app.
This app is great if you’re outside at night wondering what that light in the sky is. Open the app, twirl it around in a figure 8 to calibrate the app, and then point it at the object in the sky you are wondering about.

Download a compass to your Lumia.
This is so you know exactly where North-South-East-West is to where you are standing, thus making the use of Stellarium or Star Chart less confusing. Sometimes, when the Star Chart app is struggling to get the right location, if I turn on the compass app first, Star Chart is ready to go when I open it.

Follow daily and weekly “What is in the Sky” resources.
I highly recommend adding Astro Bob‘s daily blog posts, Astronomy, and/or Sky & Telescope‘s weekly to your blog reader/feed or subscribe to the newsletters to learn what’s happening in the sky this week or even tonight.

Make sure you use the Pro manual settings on your Lumia.
In the Pro menu bar of the Lumia Camera app, ISO, Focus, and Shutter Speed will be your best friends for taking good astrophotographs.

If you are in ‘auto’ mode in your Lumia’s camera, tap the ‘v’ symbol in the right hand/top menu bar next to the flash symbol and ‘a’ symbol to get to the Pro manual settings.

If you are using a Lumia camera phone and you don’t see the option for Lumia Pro Camera, then make sure your camera phone has the app.

Jenifer Hanen



Where should I go?

If you have access to a dark sky spot, then do go. If you have access to a really, true dark sky, then take your tripod, Lumia, a pair of binoculars, and have fun marveling at the beauty of the night sky as you take photos.

But if you don’t have access or can’t get to a dark sky spot, don’t despair. Even if you live in the bright orangish-yellow glare of the big bad city, you’ll still be able to see the Moon, the inner and giant planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), as well as a number of -1 to +2 magnitude stars.

Walk around your local area and you’ll be surprised by how much you can see and photograph if a street light is out, the neighbors don’t have their lights on or you use a tree to block light. I praise cities who are slow to replace the bulbs on street lights.

If you live on the edge of a city or can easily get to it, you will have better night sky view in the direction of the open space. I live near the beach in the greater Los Angeles area and I have three beach locations I will go to for a fairly clear South to West view of the night sky. Everything in the East and North is one big orangish blob of light pollution.

A couple handy sites that can help you determine how dark and clear your sky is are Dark Site Finder and Clear Sky Chart.


The last of the dusk, the new of the moon – Moon and Venus

When should I go?

Dawn and dusk are great for planets and the moon. True dark after civil twilight and no moon is best for the stars and Milky Way.

I find that in the winter in my locale, 5-6pm is my best friend for viewing stars, as most folks aren’t home from work so they have not turned on their house or porch lights yet, the sky is dark, and I am awake. I can also wait until 11pm or so after folks have turned off their lights and from my driveway, I can see the Andromeda galaxy with my binoculars.

Insomnia is your friend. If you wake up and can’t go back to sleep, put some clothes on and go take a peep outside. Clear skies, get thee outside with your camera phone, binoculars and tripod if you have them, and start enjoying the view as others sleep. 4am is a magical time in my neighborhood in the summer – lights are off and my eyes are more adjusted to the dark so I see more stars.

You can use Giasma to locate the time of sunrise, sunset, dawn, and dusk for your location and USNO for determining the rising and setting times of the Moon.

I’ve found my location. Now what?

Wait a bit. It may take your eyes 10-20 minutes to adjust to seeing stars in the sky. Don’t turn on a light and don’t look into lights. Use a flashlight with a red filter over it if you need some light.

If you can’t find what you are looking for, sweep the sky in a grid fashion around the area Stellarium or Star Chart shows it to be.

Be patient and persistent. Take multiple photos, adjust your settings to test what works best with your Lumia and location. Don’t be afraid to come back tomorrow night.

Jenifer Hanen

 Full Moon rising

Are you, like us, eagerly awaiting nightfall so that you can test out Jenifer’s invaluable advice about how to get started with taking astrophotos? Keep your eyes peeled for the second part of her astrophotography tutorial in the near future, and in the meantime, let us know in the comments what you think.