How to Photograph the Stars

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How to Photograph the Stars

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 capture the stars.

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

  • Camera with Manual Controls: You will be using the manual settings for ISO and shutter speed. A full-frame camera is preferable for better ISO capabilities. I currently use the Canon EOS 6D.  I have used a crop-frame Canon Rebel back in 2014 and it worked well too.
  • Wide Aperture Lens:There are a lot of stars to capture in that big sky. A lens that goes to f/2.8 works best to allow as much light in as possible. Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L ll USM Zoom Lens has a great reputation for capturing stars & making sunstars too.
  • Tripod: You will be adjusting the shutter speed to 15-25 second exposures and it will be virtually impossible to stand still & hold steady that long. I use the Manfrotto Traveler BeFree Tripod with Ball Head.
  • Camera Remote: When you click, your finger creates a small vibration and/or can wiggle the camera. I use a remote but you can also use your phone if you have downloaded the software for remote access or set your camera for a 2 second delay. I prefer a Wireless Remote Control so you don’t have the light from your phone potentially ruining your photo and you can also be in the photo.

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

  • Star App: Night Sky app (free iOS and Google Play) lets you point your phone at the sky to see where the Milky Way is and the constellations. You can take it up a notch and use Photo Pills (Paid) which provides more info to help you get your shot.
  • Headlamp: I have been relentlessly jabbed for carrying this headlamp in my gear since 2014. But guess how many times it has come in handy - COUNTLESS times. From hiking in caves, dark passages in castles, and night photography. I put this headlamp on and have both hands to adjust my camera… or stick my hands in my pocket with the remote and take images while everyone else fiddles with their phone lights, freezes their hands and only has one hand to work with.
  • Photography Gloves: On a winter trip through Utah, I had fingersicles by the end of every photo session. Most gloves (even tech ones) are too clunky to operate the camera with and be able to adjust the settings. So you rip off the gloves to adjust your camera and freeze your digits. I found these and they work great. Just a digit or two exposed and can be quickly covered up.

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

  • ISO: 1600
  • Aperture: f/2.8
  • Shutter Speed: 25 second exposure
  • Shoot in RAW for post editing capabilities
  • Tip: Copy the settings above and put them in your NOTES on your phone. You can quick reference them if a night shot opportunity arises.

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.

  • Tip: For tripod setup, use this tip from Ansel Adams - America's best landscape photographers. Point one leg of the tripod at your subject so you can stand in between the other two legs. The central post of the tripod should be vertical and perpendicular; confirm this alignment with a bubble level.
  • Tip: I highly recommend you play around with your camera settings before you head out into the night to capture them to gain familiarity with your setup.

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!

Tekapo New Zealand - Night Photography

Inspired to photography the stars?

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