How to Photograph Stars

star panorama with the milky way

Have you ever stood outside on a clear night and looked up into the sky and seen all of those sparkly little jewels up there? Then you have grabbed a camera and tried to photograph what you see in all of its brilliance, and all you end up with are black photos? Well here are a few tips to help you get started in getting professional results with your star photography.

A photo of stars and the milky way with a tree in the foreground

stars and a sunset

Essential Items

You will need a small selection of accessories and a camera that has certain capabilities to be able to capture stars in their full glory. Let’s see what you will need.

* Your camera should have a night sky option if it is a smaller type compact camera
* Or a DSLR with manual mode
* A good tripod
* Insect repellent is always a good take along if photographing in Summer and warm clothes if photographing in Winter
* A clear night

Location Location

If you want to get great star photographs, the location is quite important. You want to find a spot that has minimal light pollution from towns or cities. No clouds in the sky is important , as you are not going to be able to see the stars if clouds are present. Obvious but true. Also try to find somewhere that is free from smog, fog and other forms of atmospheric pollution. If you live in the city, you will get better results if you travel outside of the city, but sometimes you have to work with what you have got. You can still get ok results if conditions are not ideal. Perhaps make your star photography an adventure by taking along some hot coffee, some snacks, and a friend or two… and a dog.

stars clouds and a beach with street lights

As mentioned in the how to photograph sunsets blog entry, it is good to include some items of interest in the base of your image so you are not only looking at stars. A tree top or some streetlights or even a lake or pond make for interesting viewing and they base your photograph well. Think about something that will make your photograph unique and stand out from other similar photos.

The Moon

As with the location, if the moon is present, you will have extra light to deal with that will compromise your photos. For the best results, avoid photographing stars on nights with bright moonlight. Otherwise your photos will end up looking like they were taken during the day. Also if you are not outside on a full moon evening, your chances of being mauled by a werewolf are greatly reduced.

Stars in Moonlight

Stars photographed on an evening when the moon was quite bright

Camera Settings

You might need some basic understanding on how to change settings on your camera. I will not be going into detail, but there are 4 things that you will need to know how to do. So you might need to consult your cameras manual or check online if you are not sure. These are;

1, Set your camera into manual mode
2, Change your shutter speed
3, Change your ISO setting
4, Change your aperture

1, Once you have found a location and you have set your camera up on a tripod, you will need to put your camera into manual mode and set up the following settings. You can set your camera into manual mode by selecting the M option on the dial on the top the camera. Here are some examples of various camera dials so you can visualise where to switch your camera to M (manual).

Set camera to manual mode

2, Once your camera is in manual, you should change your shutter speed to 30 seconds. Each camera has its own way of changing settings. Some through the screen on the top, and others through the screen on the back. I won’t go into too much detail here but your screen should look something like this.

camera settings for photographing stars

Some cameras can set the shutter speed to longer than 30 seconds, but I do not recommend that as the stars are moving across the sky. Any longer than 30 seconds and the stars look like little streaks instead of bright dots.

3, You will then need to change your ISO setting to in-between ISO800 to ISO3200. Remember that the higher your ISO setting is, the more noisy and grainy your image will look. A little noise is ok but a lot of noise will mean you lose detail and the image will appear muddy.

4, Set your aperture to around f5.0 to f8.0. This will ensure that you are getting a good balance of detail and light into your images. The higher your aperture is (f16 – f22) means that you are letting in less light and your images may end up black. The lower the aperture is (F2.8 – 3.5) means you will lose some detail in your landscape (star) photographs.

Additional Tips

Vibrations are your enemy when taking long exposure photos. When you set your shutter speed to a long setting such as 30 seconds, that is a long exposure. Anything you can do to minimize shake and vibrations is going to be a big bonus because these will make your photographs blurry. Try to avoid photographing stars or long exposure photography on a windy night. The wind will shake your tripod and camera around which may also give you blurry photographs. Stand back from your camera and be careful not to bump your tripod to avoid those camera shake, blurry photos.

Some more Sneaky Tricks with your Camera

If your camera has a self-timer, use this to trigger your photographs. The self-timer will eliminate any shake from you pressing the shutter. Also if your camera has a mirror lock up function, use that as well, and your photographs will be clear and crisp. Just remember to take the self-timer and the mirror lock off when you are done as they might be a pain next time you are out taking normal photographs.

Summary

So those are some pointers and tips in setting up, and capturing great star photos. I am always a fan of trying to mix it up a little. By including other interesting objects in your star photos, you can get an image that tells more of a story, than just great stars. Use a flash and see if you can get a person in your photographs. Or even include a favourite car or motorbike. Just remember to keep your camera as still as possible and try out different camera settings and see what works for you. Most importantly, have fun!



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