This tutorial will teach you how to photograph stars in the night sky. Few sights are as inspiring and humbling as looking up during a dark night and seeing the infinitely vast field of stars visible to our naked eye. For me, being able to capture and share this spectacular display is what photography is all about. Trying to photograph stars can be frustrating if you don’t know what settings to use or how to get started.
Equipment You Will Need
- DSLR capable of long exposures or that can be attached to a manual shutter release. (Click here to see my recommended cameras)
- Wide lens
Useful Tools, But Not Required
- Laser Pointer
- LED Flashlight
- Manual Shutter Release Cable
- Smart Phone or Tablet with Dark Sky Finder & Sky Guide apps
Step 1. Find Some Dark Sky
If you live in a city or town this can be the most difficult part of photographing the stars. Light pollution from city lights makes it difficult or impossible to even see the stars, let alone photograph them. Your first task is to find a location far enough away from light pollution that you can have a clean view of the night sky. Ideally your location will be far enough away from a main road or highway that you won’t be disturbed by the headlights from passing cars. When looking for a location, keep in mind that photographs of the night sky are often more interesting if they include a foreground element. Old barns or abandoned buildings work well. Look for anything that you can use to improve your composition.
I really like to use the iPhone app Dark Sky Finder to help find locations with the least amount of light pollution. This map shows your location on a map interface with color overlays that indicate the amount of light pollution where you are. I’ve found that traveling to a green or purple area is usually sufficient but if you can get to an area with no light pollution that is obviously ideal.
Step 2. Find Your Shot
Once you’ve found your location spend some time and find the most interesting composition. I like to spend 10 min or so and walk around and really take a look at the environment. The best shot is probably not the most obvious one. Explore without your camera at first. What would the shot look like if you shot it really low to the ground? What is in your environment that can strengthen the composition? Are there fence posts or a ditch that you can shoot at an angle that will lead the viewers eye to the point of interest? Take some time and really think about your shot setup. If you’ve found some dark sky, this is where that LED flashlight will really come in handy. I always pack a small but powerful LED flashlight to help scout compositions in the dark. I really like this LED Headlamp because it keeps my hands free for setting up equipment. It’s also helpful for light painting or illuminating foreground objects like in the image below.
When thinking about composition, you might also want to consider the position of the stars in the sky. The brightest part of the Milky Way may be visible depending on your location and the time and date. I like to use the iPhone App Sky Guide to find what time and in what part of the sky the Milky Way will be visible. Sky Guide is like a mini observatory in your pocket. As you hold it up it acts like a window in, overlaying star information on the sky, or rather a representation of how the night sky looks based on your location. You can search for stars and advance time to see where certain stars or objects will be in the near future. Great app for planing your shot. Don’t forget to factor in the phase and location of the moon. If it’s a night with a full bright moon, you may not be able to capture many stars at all!
Step 3. Setup Your Camera
When photographing the stars or doing any kind of long exposure photography, a solid tripod is a must. Setup your tripod and attach the camera, being careful not to drop it or knock it over in the dark. Once you have your composition framed and level, lock down your tripod head and make sure the feet of the tripod have settled into the ground and won’t move as you work with your camera. When shooting the night sky, you will want to shoot with the widest focal length you have available to you. The wider your lens, the longer you can have your shutter open without capturing the stars streaking. Remember, the earth is rotating! If you capture a long enough exposure, you are essentially going to get motion blur as the earth rotates and each point of light in the sky shifts. Of course, this can be an interesting effect in itself. If you want to take a shot longer than 30 seconds, you can use the above mentioned shutter release cable to keep the shutter open as long as you want.
Because we want full control of all of our camera settings, make sure your camera in Manual mode by turning the mode dial to the “M.”
Shutter Speed: Most DSLRs will only let you select a maximum shutter speed of 30 seconds. If you are trying to capture the stars as single sharp points of light, this is about the longest you can shoot at a 17mm focal length anyway. Longer focal lengths will start to see star movement at an exposure that long.
Aperture: Because you are shooting at night, you’re going to want to do everything you can to let in as much light to your sensor as possible. Set your aperture to the widest setting. This will be the smallest f-stop number: f/4, f/1.8 etc.
ISO: You will want to experiment with this setting depending on what camera you have. The 5D Mark III is capable of incredibly high ISOs without too much noise. Typically, the higher you crank up your ISO, the more noise will show up in your photograph. I like to do some test shots and find an ISO that is the lowest I can go while still exposing for the stars. Your camera may have a “High ISO Noise Reduction” or “Long Exposure Noise Reduction” feature. Experiment with this to see what gives you the best results.
Focus: Setting focus in the dark can be difficult. I like to use a laser pointer to put a red dot on a distant object such as a hill or structure. This gives your camera’s autofocus something distant to focus on. Point the laser pointer, set focus on the dot, and then switch your lens to manual focus so you don’t change focus when you go to take the photo.
Step 4. Take the Shot
Once you have your settings setup, it’s time to take some test shots. Carefully press the shutter release button being careful not to bump or move the camera. Wait for the long exposure to complete, and then take a look at the photo on your camera’s LCD screen. I find it helpful to zoom in if your camera has this feature and check the focus on the stars. You may find that they are slightly out of focus and you need to reset focus. Note that the stars will always look better and brighter on the LCD screen than they will be when you get them on the computer and look at them full size. I’ve shot star pictures many times that look great on the camera’s screen but end up being throw-aways because they are completely out of focus or underexposed and you can only tell after getting them on your computer screen.
If you want to take an exposure longer than 30 seconds, you will need to get a shutter release cable that is compatible with your camera. Set you camera to Bulb mode, connect the cable, and then press and lock the button to keep the shutter open until you release the lock. You can also use it to trigger a normal exposure in manual mode (30 seconds or less) by pressing and releasing the button just like you would on your camera. The camera will then open the shutter for however long you have your shutter speed set to (in manual mode).