The Canon M50 is the best entry-level mirrorless camera that I’ve ever come across. Most people know it for its simplicity and effectiveness with daylight photos and videos. But it turns out, the Canon EOS M50 (and the Mark II) are exceptional when it comes to night photography as well. I decided to make this ten-step guide to prove just that.
Follow these steps to photograph the night sky with a Canon M50.
1. Get all the necessary equipment
Since you’re reading this article, you probably already have a Canon M50 or Canon M50 Mark II. However, you still need some more equipment to do astrophotography.
- The first thing you’ll need is a tripod. In astrophotography, you’ll be using shutter speeds of up to 15 seconds or more. It doesn’t matter how still you think your hands are, it’s physically impossible to hold a camera 100% still for that long. The shaking of your hands during long exposures will make stars look like squiggles instead of dots. You can buy a tripod on Amazon, remember not to go too cheap, since you get what you pay for. If you can’t get a tripod, you can place your camera on a solid object.
- The next thing you’ll need is a powerful lens. For night sky photography, there are three things you need. A fast aperture, a long focal length, and a manual focus indicator. When it comes to aperture, you want the fastest you can find. The lower the f/stop, the better. A wide-angle lens is advantageous because it has a higher field of view, a good thing in most cases, and fewer star trails. Also, focal length is correlated with the maximum amount of shutter speed we can use, more on this later. Finally, a manual indicator makes it quick and easy to focus to infinity, something we’ll need to do later. The Canon M50 comes with the EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens. This lens is not ideal, but it does fit 2/3 of our criteria, so buying a new lens is optional.
2. Find a location with low light pollution
The most crucial factor that determines the outcome of your photos is light pollution. You can be a professional photographer but a beginner will still get a better photo than you if they have significantly less light pollution. Light pollution is when man-made light outshines the stars. In an urban area, you’ll see less than a dozen. In a rural area, you’ll see thousands. Places like these are called “dark sites.”
Dark Site Finder and Light Pollution Map are two incredibly powerful tools to find dark sites. Dark Site Finder more accurately shows the distance light pollution travels, but Light Pollution Map is more detailed. If I had to pick one, I would use Dark Site Finder.
Here’s a map of the world’s light pollution according to Dark Site Finder. The color on the map symbolizes the intensity of the light pollution. The pins on the map are good spots for star gazing submitted by users. The key is pretty straightforward, the brighter the color, the brighter the pollution. The only issue with this is that dark and light grey can be mixed up.
Here’s a more detailed key based on my own experiences
|Light Pollution||Area||What to expect|
|White||Urban||Almost no stars and lots of skyglow, glare, and light pollution.|
|Red||Urban/Suburban||A small number of stars with some skyglow and glare from street lights.|
|Orange||Suburban||Some stars but no milky way galaxy.|
|Yellow||Suburban/Rural||Some stars but no milky way galaxy.|
|Green||Rural||A good amount of stars and a faint milky way galaxy.|
|Blue||Dark/Rural||An excellent amount of stars and a good milky way galaxy.|
|Black||Dark||An excellent amount of stars and an excellent milky way galaxy.|
Anything below green is pretty good but go for the darkest spot you can find.
3. Choose a date and time
Picking a time is as crucial as picking a location.
1. I take it back, there’s one thing more important than light pollution: weather. If it’s cloudy on the night you drive out, that’s a problem. Make sure that when you plan to go, there are clear skies. Check the weather each day because weather reports change often.
2. Light pollution isn’t always man-made. Sometimes, it comes from the moon. A bright full moon is all it takes to ruin a photo. Anything less than a quarter (which is actually a half) should be ok. You can check the phase of the moon on this online almanac.
3. Celestial events are important. Meteor showers, comets, and auroras can bring a photo from good to excellent. Make sure to do your research on celestial events and if one is coming up, you should plan around that day. You can check when the next meteor shower is here.
4. Current constellations should be taken into account. What do you actually want to photograph? The Orion nebula? The Milky Way? If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, the Milky Way is most visible in the summer months, while Orion is most visible in the winter. However, I don’t recommend waiting multiple months for the right constellation to appear, if the weather is nice and the moon is right, take the shot.
4. Enable manual mode
The Canon M50 has quite a few modes. However, the only mode we care about is manual. To enable it, turn the mode dial on the top of your camera to the letter M. In manual mode, you can adjust any and all of your camera’s settings without it automatically trying to compensate. The reason automatic shooting won’t work is that a camera will never set its shutter speed higher than the amount that a human can hold their hands still. Since a long shutter speed is required, we must use manual mode. Camera shaking isn’t a problem when we have a tripod.
5. Set the aperture and focal length
Setting the aperture is easy, the f/stop number should be as low as your lens permits. This will maximize the amount of light entering your camera, which is what we want. Assuming you’re using the M50’s kit lens, this will be f/3.5. If you’ve bought another, the minimum aperture should be printed on the box.
If your camera won’t allow you to use its minimum aperture, this is because of your focal length. For most cameras, aperture capacity decreases as you zoom in. So you need to zoom out as far as possible. Zooming out is also helpful when it comes to avoiding star trails.
6. Set the shutter speed
Choosing shutter speed is a bit more complicated. We want as much light as possible, but there is a limit. Due to the rotation of the earth, shutter speed can’t be too long or we’ll capture the rotation of the earth. Stars will look like lines instead of dots, these are called star trails. Star trails can be done on purpose, but usually, they’re something we want to avoid.
The shutter speed we want can be calculated using the 500 rule. Take 500 and divide it by the full-frame equivalent focal length of your camera/lens. The lens that comes with the Canon M50 has a minimum focal length of 15mm, equivalent to 35mm if the camera was full-frame, so 500 divided by 35 is approximately 14. So according to the 500 rule, the shutter speed we need is 14 seconds.
7. Set ISO
The Sony M50 has an ISO range of 100-6400. More ISO means a brighter photo. Keep in mind that ISO does not increase the amount of light entering your camera, all it does is make your camera more sensitive. Artificially brightening a photo using ISO can cause grain and decreased quality called noise. Also, increased ISO can amplify an aspect of light pollution called sky glow. I base my ISO according to the amount of light pollution present. Less light pollution, more ISO, and visa-versa. But usually, I stick to about 1600.
8. Focus on infinity
In order to focus on far-away objects, we use what’s called “infinity focus.” Many lenses have manual focus indicators, this makes focusing on infinity quite easy. Unsurprisingly, this is only present on higher-end lenses and does not exist on the kit lens that comes with our camera. Fortunately, all hope is not lost, to focus on infinity you simply need to manually focus on a distant object like the moon, this isn’t exactly infinity, but it’s close enough.
9. Snap the photo
The final thing to do is take the photo. Make sure you get something interesting in the foreground like mountains or trees. A photo of only the sky isn’t unique. Framing the photo correctly can take many tries. This can get time-consuming because of our fourteen-second exposure, so I recommend reducing shutter speed temporarily until you’ve framed your photo correctly.
Post-processing is the enhancement of your photos with software like Adobe Lightroom. Post-processing is very complicated and Adobe Lightroom is expensive. If you’re willing to put in the effort, here’s an advanced tutorial.
If you’re not, here’s a basic one that uses the free version of Adobe Lightroom for iOS or Android. I will be post-processing this public domain photo of the milky way found on pxhere.com:
Step 1: Adjust exposure
Increase or decrease exposure to compensate for an overexposed or underexposed photo. This photo was too dark so we’ll be increasing it.
Step 2: Increase contrast
Increase contrast to reveal hidden stars. But not too much or things will look weird.
Step 3: Increase clarity
Increase clarity to make stars pop. Again, not too much.
Step 4: Cool the temperature
Reduce the temperature to bring out the colors of the milky way. Look for a mixture of blue and orange, if you see only blue, you’ve gone too far.
Step 5: Increase saturation
Increase saturation to amplify these colors, try not to make it look unnatural.
Before and after
Usually, I would post-process a little bit less, but this is just for demonstration.