“When I photograph, what I’m really doing is seeking answers to things.”– Wynn Bullock
Capturing the planets that are far far away from us, is like a quest to the unknown. Locking those unseen views in a frame, feels like a trip to the vast universe out there. Want to join? Let's get started.
Planetary imaging can be both easy and tricky depending on the process you choose. Learn in just 10 simple steps! Take a look at the equipment first to understand quickly.
What Do You Need to Photograph Planets?
You need a telescope and a DSLR or better, a telescope with a dedicated astronomy camera to take all kinds of images of the planets including zoomed in shots and surface views. For capturing visible planets a DSLR, lens and a tripod is enough.
You might already have a DSLR. If you do not have the budget for a tripod for now, no worries. Just brace the camera against a bench or a fence and you are ready to go. Take it easy in the beginning. Starting something new is hard enough, don't make it harder by pushing yourself too much. Once you start to get along, add on gears accordingly.
Different tools will get you different shots. Some are just for entry level planetary imaging. Whereas, some are capable of capturing the crater or mountain views of the planets. Knowing about them will help you to understand the planetary imaging process better. Have a look at the general list of equipment-
You can take fine planetary images with an iPhone by attaching it with your telescope. Though the shots won't be as good as the ones taken with a DSLR and other astronomy cameras; take this as your starting step.
For taking wide angle photographs of planets, a DSLR is a good choice. As you can control the camera settings manually. If you want to take a more detailed picture, then attach your DSLR with your telescope. Adding a barlow lens in this setting would amplify the magnification.
Point and shoot cameras are not that much popular if you compare them with a DSLR. Because it has less manual control options. But the lenses of these cameras are so small that it might even fit directly in your telescope. As a result, you would not have to worry much about the external movement. If your telescope's eyepiece has a high magnification or if you are using a good quality barlow lens, then go for it without worrying.
For zoomed in pictures and surface views of the planets, webcam and dedicated astronomy cameras are the best choice you can make. Astro- cameras can get you the best night sky shots as they are designed to do so. But they do not have camera bodies or screens like a DSLR. You need to connect them with your computer through USB cable and have specific softwares to control the capturing.
Remote shutter release
Remote shutter release saves the set up from extra shaking. It is completely an optional gear. But to take photos constantly one after another avoiding extra shaking, you do need a remote shutter release. Use a cable shutter release or a wireless one according to your convenience.
What kind of telescope do you need for photographing planets?
The higher the aperture is, the better the telescope is to capture planetary images. 8 inches or more than 8 inches aperture is good for taking quality shots. You can take fine photographs with less aperture as well but the seeing needs to be good for that.
A reflecting telescope works pretty well for photographing the planets. But you might find it troublesome to mount and handle a reflecting telescope with a wide aperture as they are often very heavy. Also, this kind of telescope requires you to do mirror cleaning.
Or you can consider buying a refractor telescope as it is also good for planetary imaging. A color- corrector refractor with a wide aperture is even better. But it is expensive and collects less light.
If you are looking for an all rounder type, consider a catadioptric scope. It uses both lenses and mirrors. These kinds of telescopes are portable and comparatively easier to balance. It will give you a mixed experience of both reflecting and refracting telescopes in a good way.
Barlow lens or Powermate
Barlow lens or powermate amplify the focal length of your telescope. Thus the magnification increases too. This lets you take a clearer and sharper picture of the planets. Although it is not a must-have gear, it will get you better shots.
If you choose to use a monochrome camera, then you need to buy a set of filters like LRGB (Luminance, Red, Green, and Blue) or RGB (Red, Green,Blue). Attach them with your telescope or a filter wheel. Many professionals suggest choosing a monochrome camera with filters over one shot color. Because having the shots with a specific color filter at a time will let you capture more detail of each color separately.
But you need to keep in mind that this process will take 3 – 4 times more work. Also, it will add up more to your budget. So, if you want to keep it simple and fast, just go for a color camera.
Moreover, you can add a high quality narrowband filter in your equipment list to get better shots. It increases contrast. Lets you have quality images even in light polluted areas or in moonlight and much more.
As the earth and the target planet both are constantly moving, an equatorial mount is used to keep pace. It constantly moves to prevent the movement of the earth and planet from getting captured. Thus it saves your planetary photographs from getting blurry. It actually works as a compensator for the orbitation of the earth.
Computer / laptop
You need a computer or laptop to connect the gears together. Make sure to have a computer or laptop that can support the dedicated astrophotography softwares for capturing and processing the photographs of planets.
You might find a laptop more comfortable as it is more portable. But a computer is more reliable when it comes to supporting softwares effectively.
How to Photograph Planets?
To photograph planets, attach a wide-angle on your DSLR and take wide-angle shots of the visible planets. If you want to capture surface detailed images of the planet, attach your DSLR or an astro- camera with the telescope. Make sure to dial in proper settings to get the best shots.
Understand the whole process properly. That would make it easier for you to get a grip on the process and get skilled day by day. Learn in 10 simple steps-
1. Set up the gears
Attach the camera, telescope, mount, remote shutter release and all the other gears together. Make sure to set them properly and do not scratch out the gears while rushing. Switch on the power supply and connect the gears with your laptop.
You can skip the telescope if you are taking wide angle shots of the visible planets of the solar system. All you need to do is to find an appropriate time when they are visible to the naked eye.
2. Let the kit cool
Let the kit cool down for a bit after setting up. Do not just rush to the next step. Let your gears cool down to prevent the inner current of the telescope. Because inner current worsens the quality of image. The larger the telescope and other tools are, the more hours you need to give the kit to cool down. Moreover, give time to your camera and lens to capture a better view of the planets.
3. Control shutter speed or exposure
In camera, shutter speed controls the recording time of light. If you keep the shutter open for a longer time, more light gets recorded. Exposure also means the same thing. The only difference is a longer shutter speed implies a shorter exposure. Usually the shutter speed is set to 5-30 seconds for capturing night sky objects depending on the situation.
Set the shutter speed 20- 30 seconds to get the brightest view of the planets. As short as the exposure is or as long as the shutter speed is, the planet will be brighter in photographs.
4. Adjust ISO
ISO refers to the light control of the sensor of a camera. Adjusting it in different numbers can either brighten or darken the image of the planets. A higher ISO will let you take a brighter picture if you keep the shutter speed constant.
Set the number from 800 to 1600 to suit the lighting situation. If the scene is dark, use a higher ISO. Do not make it too bright or too dark. Before deciding to set any particular ISO number for a frame, take some sample photos to see how it turns out.
5. Control Focal length
As the planets appear in small sizes from earth, you need to magnify them to get the sharp images. Focal length controls the magnification of an image. A telescope of longer focal length is better to magnify more effectively. Putting a barlow lens or powermate will increase the effective focal length and let you have a sharper image of the planets.
6. Select white balance
White balance means the color balance of the photo. Select the white balance manually if your camera has the features to let you do so. Setting to auto white balance by default might seem trouble free but that won't give you a great experience. The images will worsen as it will make the sky look red or brown.
To get satisfying photographs of the planets, set the white balance to daylight or sunny. You can also set it to a custom white balance to get a good result. Try all of them to choose which one works for you the most.
7. Set alignment or collimate
While reading how to, you might get confused over the words ‘alignment' and ‘collimation'. Both are the same thing. Both of those means setting all the gear in a proper line up. It is important to check every screw and make corrections while collimating or aligning the gears.
For capturing the planets properly, you need to check whether all the gears are in proper alignment or not. Follow the tool's instructions for collimating properly.
Focusing on the target planet is the last thing to set before releasing the shutter. Instead of using auto focus, use manual mode on camera for capturing the planets better. If you are using a camera that is attached with the telescope, then simply turn the focuser knob and get the target planet into view. Take some sample photos to ensure the right focus for planets.
9. Take the pictures or capture video
Once you are done adjusting the ISO, shutter speed and focal length; start taking pictures. Take a lot of pictures of every single frame to get the best ones out of them. As images often get blurry after clicking, it is important to click more to have more options to choose.
If you are recording videos instead of photos to get photographs after processing, then make sure to take around as many frames as you can. Take more if the atmosphere doesn't seem to be good. You can drop the frame that doesn't work for you later but you can not get one if you don't capture it.
10. Process the photograph
Processing the photographs is the final step. First,Transfer the photos or videos to your computer. Then, find the best frames for editing. You can increase brightness, reduce noise or cut the frames shorter by using some dedicated astro softwares.
How to Photograph Visible Planets of the Solar System?
You can photograph the 5 visible planets; Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn of the solar system with a DSLR, wide angle lens and a tripod.
Though you can get pictures of the visible planets using a DSLR, it won’t give you detailed images. It can only get you the pictures where the planets almost look like stars. Not everyone acknowledges enough to distinguish between the planets and the stars.
Thus the planets in your photographs might end up being called stars. Using a telescope is a better option as it can give you zoomed in photos of the planets and the surface detail as well.
Which Planets Can You Photograph without a Telescope?
You can photograph the 5 visible planets without a telescope. But you can not even see Uranus and Neptune without a telescope because of their fainter view from earth. Therefore, you can not capture them without a telescope. Nevertheless, you can not get the surface detail photographs of any of the planets without a telescope.
Tips for Photographing Planets
Only following the steps of how to do, is not enough for capturing a good image of the planets. You need to know some tips and techniques to capture the more remarkably. To give you a handful, we have gathered some basic tips. Have a look-
- Try to choose a dark night with good conditions.
- The bigger the telescope is, the more surface detail you can capture. Because bigger telescopes have higher focal lengths and aperture that let you zoom in, magnify and get you brighter shots. This results in clearer and sharper images of the planets.
- Try to capture the planets when it is close to earth and on the opposite side of the sun. It is the time of orbitation when the planet looks the biggest and brightest from earth while photographing. Plan to photograph around those times.
- Shoot the planets when the seeing is good. Seeing refers to the steadiness of the objects. Good seeing is when the planet stays comparatively steady and you won't see visible shaking. In that condition, planetary images do not get blurry.
- Use a high speed camera to capture more frames.
- Use a monochrome camera with RGB filters for a detailed image.
- Take several photographs at a time. As the earth and the target planet both are moving constantly, you can not get proper shots at a time. They tend to get blurry most of the time. Therefore, take a series of photos to increase the chances of getting the best shots.
See, even the famous photographers admitted that first photographs won't be that good. So, what is stopping you? Grab the camera right away. You might be the next most famous photographer.
Start with observing the visible planets with naked eye. This will help you know the positions of the planets better and get better photographs.
We hope that the article has given you a handful. Do let us know about your inquiries and first planetary imaging experience in the comment section. We are waiting to hear from you. Happy photographing.