Leiden University: Astrophotography for beginners

Last week was the opening of SNAP! The night sky through a Leidener’s lens. The exhibition, located in a library in the Stevenshof, shows how astrophotographers capture the universe from their backyards. This does not have to be difficult: your mobile phone camera will get you a long way.

In the BplusC Library Stevenshof you have a chance to admire more than books; currently there is a special astrophotography exhibition on display. Astrophotography is all about capturing the starry sky and the objects in it. This can lead to pictures that are not only beautiful, but also spark curiosity. Once it is not too cloudy, of course.

Long shutter speeds for small stars
During the grand opening, visitors may take part in an astrophotography workshop. Leiden astronomy student Bowen Cameron explains the principle: ‘Because stars are so small, we have to adjust our cameras to be as sensitive as possible. We can do that by setting the light sensitivity, or ISO, as high as possible, and by making the shutter speed, the period in which the picture is taken, as long as possible.’

There is an app for that
Seasoned astrophotographers normally use cameras with expensive lenses and special tripods that rotate with the Earth. Bowen, too, prefers not to think about how much money he has already invested in his equipment. Luckily a phone camera will do just fine for this workshop. Many newer mobile phones already allow manual adjustment of ISO and shutter speed. ‘For other mobile phones, you will have to look in the appstore for a camera app that lets you do the same thing,’ says Bowen.

Don’t move
Despite the fact that on previous weeks there were clear skies over Leiden, visitors will have to make do with clouds on the opening night. Therefore, the principle of astrophotography is demonstrated using a flashlight. Bowen: ‘Because of the long shutter time of the cameras, we can use this torch to draw lines in the dark. But make sure the camera doesn’t move! Use a tripod or put your phone up against something.’

A different way of taking photographs
After fiddling with the camera settings of their mobile phones, most visitors manage to take some great shots. They make light drawings in the dark, or ghostly pictures of faces. ‘I had never thought about using my mobile camera in this way,’ says one of the participants. A new generation of astrophotographers are born, manufacturers of automatically moving tripods may rejoice.

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