How to Photograph the Stars at Night

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How to Photograph the Stars at Night

Look at the stars.. look how they shine for you…..

There is nothing like going out into nature or being in a more remote place and looking up at the night sky to see a blanket of stars overhead.

I don’t see it nearly enough these days mostly staying in cities.  Traveling to remote places has given me the opportunity for that quiet peacefulness and to photograph the stars at night.

I loved learning how to capture the night skies in remote places like Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, Australia and the Utah desert. Here are my tips to capture those stars!

Equipment Needed

While not needed, these items make capturing the stars a lot easier and warmer.

Location, Location, Location

You need some dark skies to avoid light pollution. If you ever see a picture of Santorini or Paris with the milky way shining above it… well that’s photoshop.

You need some really remote places at least 75-100 miles away from small towns to get clear views of the stars and milky way. Higher elevations will also yield better results as the thinner atmosphere and altitude have an effect with less light refraction.

In this photo of Monument Valley, there was a town far off in the distance creating the light source.

Night Skies in Monument Valley

Camera Setup

To capture the stars shining above, you will need a combination of a high ISO, wide aperture and long shutter speeds to capture it all.  These are the settings I usually start with:

Astrophotography Camera Settings

If your lens only goes to f/4.0, try 30 seconds at f/4 with ISO 1600.
With a really good full-frame camera ie Canon 5D Mark III, you can adjust the ISO up to 2000 without much noise. You can also adjust some of the noise out in Lightroom.

If your shutter speed is too high, you will start capturing star trails. I usually start to see these at 30 seconds. Star Trails are pretty amazing captures too if you want that effect.

Compose the Picture

Stick with the rule of thirds and frame one-third of the horizon against two-thirds of the night sky. I usually line up my camera and then check it in the live view and then switch back to the viewfinder. Honestly I usually have to take a shot and see if anything is off kilter.

Adding an image in the foreground can help set the scene and add context to the stars.  If you are going to be in the photo, make sure to stand very still or you will appear a little blurry.

Tripod set up, manual settings set, click that remote and take a shot!

BlueSkyTraveler Utah Arches Night Photography

For this shot, I had my right hand (away from the camera) on my headlamp and started the photo with the lamp on. I clicked the remote and shined my headlamp on the arch for about 5 seconds trying not to move my body. Then clicked the light off for the remaining 20 seconds and held still while the photo was still being taken.

And if you look at the arch.. I caught a shooting star!

Moon Effect

Oftentimes, it is enough to just get dark skies and everything lined up to get a shot on a trip.  If you can, also take into account the light from the moon.

New Moon: A new moon will provide the darkest skies to capture the milky way and smaller stars. However, low light increases noise.

Full Moon: A full moon, especially when low in the sky, will illuminate the foreground and take away some of the light pollution. However, it will also obscure smaller stars.

Quarter or Crescent Moon: This middle ground seems to be the best conditions in order to illuminate your foreground, but not so bright to increase the noise level as an effect of the higher ISO.

If west-facing, shoot in early night when the moon is low in the eastern sky.

If east-facing, shoot in early morning when the moon is low in the western sky.

Processing the Photo

Your photo on the viewfinder will still often look like a dark grey/back background with dull stars.

This is where Lightroom will reveal your photo.

Playing around with the exposure, noise reduction (counter the pixelation of the ISO), whites up/ blacks down (contrast of stars on dark sky), clarity (defines he stars), and saturation to bring out any colors in the sky and the milky way.

… This photo in Tekapo was edited in Lightroom. … And another shooting star!

129.Tekapo.NightSkies 1 2
Tekapo New Zealand - Night Photography

Inspired to photograph the stars?

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