Photographing Stars Using a Kit Lens

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Photographing Stars Using a Kit Lens

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Pic 01 d5100 18mm f3 5 20sec iso1600

Looking at a starry sky while sitting in the open is always a soothing experience, but shooting those stars is a much better one. Have you seen those amazing starry skies and Milky Way photographs from professional photographers and wondered how to do this yourself but never tried it because you thought you did not have the proper equipment? Let me tell you, “You were wrong”.

If you own a normal DSLR camera and are interested in shooting stars (and the Milky Way), you can do this with your kit lens. I will explain the whole process step by step in the easiest possible way, so that even if you do not have much technical knowledge, you can understand and implement this method.

Basics of star photography

To get started, you need to have following points in mind:

  • A place away from the city lights. The less light pollution you have, the more chance of getting clear stars you will have.
  • A moonless night. Stars can also be shot on a full moon night, but the brighter the moon is, the more light pollution it creates, and the stars will not be as prominent.
  • A normal DSLR camera with a standard 18-55 mm kit lens.
  • A tripod

You can Google your surroundings for away from the city spots (Dark Sky) and moon phases at night. You should know beforehand in what direction, and at what time the moon is going to rise. That will help you a lot with composition of your images. A moonless night is always best to shoot stars.

Additionally, you can also use a compass app on your smartphone (for Android here) to locate the north star for star trails and you can also download an app called Star Chart (for iOS or for Android) or Google Sky just to give you an idea of which stars there are above you. Both of these apps also show you the direction of the Milky Way so you can directly shoot it and get amazing results.

These apps are pretty accurate, and with their help you can also see Mars, even with your naked eye (which I am sure you saw previously but were unable to differentiate it from stars). If you want to plan your shoot for future, or look for appropriate time sto shoot Milky Way in your location, you can download a desktop app Stellarium. Put in your coordinates and it will show you the direction of the Milky Way at a specific time, on a specific date of the year. Using this application, you can know exactly at what time of year, the brightest part of Milky Way will be above your location to shoot.

Pic 02 d5100 18mm f3 5 20sec iso1600

Camera settings

Now let’s get to the important part, camera settings. You will need to take control of your camera, keeping it in Manual mode. Change the mode to Manual and tune in the following settings.

Focal length: Set your focal length to the widest you have – e.g., 18 mm in the case of a kit lens. You can choose any focal length you want, but the more you zoom in (the longer the focal length is), the less stars you will be able to capture, and your optimum exposure time before star trails start to develop will also decrease (500 Rule).

Aperture: Setting your aperture to the widest option is key here – e.g., f/3.5 as in a kit lens. By using the widest the aperture, more light will enter through your lens giving you brighter stars and Milky Way.

Shutter speed: If you are only shooting stars and/or the Milky Way, set the shutter speed to 20 seconds or star trails will start to appear, giving the look of larger, unfocused stars. If you are wondering, why 20 seconds, here is the answer. Optimum exposure before you start getting star trails is calculated by dividing 500 by your focal length (also divide the answer by 1.5 if you are using cropped sensor.) So in the example of an 18mm lens on a cropped sensor – 500 divided by 18 = 27.78 divided by 1.5 = 18.52 (so roughly 20 seconds).

Pic 08 D5100 18mm f3 5 20sec ISO 1600 2

ISO: Start by keeping the ISO at 1600, and increase it later depending on your results. Keep in mind that greater the ISO, more noise there will be in your image. Although it does depend on signal to noise ratio of camera body you are using. High end or even new consumer camera bodies tend to produce less noise at higher ISOs, than do older ones, even three years old.

Shutter release: You need to have a shutter release (remote trigger) to avoid camera shake while shooting. If you don’t have a shutter release remote/cable, just use your camera;s 2-second or 10-second timer. That will minimize any blur in the picture due to camera shake.

It’s also best to switch OFF your “Vibration-Reduction” or “Image-Stabilization”, as the vibration of the motors can cause shake in the picture too.

Focusing the lens to infinity: Next, after putting up all these settings, the next most important thing left to do it focus your lens to infinity. As kit lens doesn’t have infinity marker on it, we will use hyper-focal distance values to focus the lens to infinity. Mount your camera and lens on a tripod, and focus it on any bright object far away at a distance of 20 feet or more. Point a flashlight towards camera from a distance of minimum 20 feet and focus on it if you are in the dark, and don’t have anything to focus. Once the lens is focused beyond 20 feet, its hyper-focal distance will project to infinity and your stars will be sharp. It will also help in getting anything in the foreground sharp too.

Don’t forget to switch your lens to M (Manual) after focusing, or else it will start to hunt for focus again when shutter is pressed.

If your lens is not focused to infinity, you will get the Milky Way but the stars will not be as sharp and will appear bigger. Same can happen if you go for a longer speed than required for not causing stars to produce trails. An example of these mistakes is here.

Pic 03 lens was not focused to infinity 2

Lens was not focused to infinity.

Pic 04 lens was not focused to infinity 2

Lens was not focused to infinity.

Pic 05 lens was not focused to infinity 2

Lens was not focused to infinity.

Recommendations:

It’s better to first sit in the dark for at least 15 minutes to let your eyes adjust with the surroundings. This will help you to see a lot of stars, and even the Milky Way with the naked eye and will also help you compose your images better. Enjoying your surroundings for a while is better than just starting to shoot as soon as you reach the site.

You are all set to shoot your own stars. With the help of kit lens you might not be able to get an award or feature your shot on 500px but yes, the shots will be very reasonable to make yourself happy, and impress your friends too. You could even try merging panoramas to get more of the Milky Way in your composition.

Pic 06 Panorama Stitch of 4shots 2

Post-processing:

The first part to better post-processing is RAW. Yes! always shoot in RAW as it will give you a lot of room for post-processing without affecting the quality. Secondly, some post-processing is always needed to get optimum results. You can find many tutorials on how to post process Milky Way images but the most elaborate one I found is from Hammad Iqbal Photography who also has a tutorial here on dPS on making star trails in Photoshop.

Star trails:

If you are satisfied with your shots, you can advance further to get star trails. Just locate the north star on the north pole using the Star Chart app and keep the north star (all stars rotate around this star) in your composition. For star trails, all camera settings will remain the same except that you can increase the shutter speed to 30 sec if you want.

You can go with faster shutter speeds (20 seconds or faster, if there are lights in the area and 30 seconds is overexposing). Keep the camera on continuous shooting mode and let it shoot as many exposures as it can shoot. The more pictures you will have, the more clear your star trails will be. Later, you can join all the exposures in Photoshop or use any star-trails software to create star trails. Alternately, you can take one stars shot and make star trails with it using HM Technique.

Pic 07 Star Trails A merge of 18 shots each at 30 sec

Pic 10 Star trail created in PS using HM Technique

Star trail created in PS using HM Technique

Pic 11 Fun in PS

Fun in Photoshop

Once you have nailed the Milky Way, try including foreground objects for better compositions.

Pic 09 D7000 18mm f3 5 20sec ISO 1600

Happy shooting, and keep me updated with your results. Let me know if you need any help.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Adeel Gondal is a civil engineer by profession and a hobbyist photographer who tries to learn this vast art with every passing day and believes in the sharing of knowledge.

  • Nice article Adeel! About focusing at night I usualy prefer to use my live view at 10x magnification and manualy focus on a bright star before composing my image. Then I take a test shot at high ISO and check my focus by zooming on my screen.
    what do you think?

  • Adeel Gondal

    yeah jean that is another way of doing it…. But at times you find yourself in places where no bright star or light is visible, so this trick might come in handy. One might be prepared before hand. 🙂

  • Abhishek Banerjee

    Hi Adeel,
    Wonderful article you have written here. I was in search of something like this for a long time now. One thing I wanted to ask was how do u manage to keep the noise down. I use a base model DSLR of canon and any picture I try to take of the stars ends up having humongous amount of noise on it. Also please could you please let me know the white-balance setting used by you.
    Thanks a ton!!

  • reigun

    Thanks for sharing. I’m a photohobbyist still looking for the 1st Milky Way photography. Finally a tutorial that uses kit lens, whew! Can’t wait to try it out soon!

    http://www.manikmakina.com

  • bskier7

    With the goal being to capturing the brightest and clearest night sky would you see any benefit to using a 35mm prime lens (f/1.8) over the 18mm kit lens? Or do you still think the wider angle the better?

  • Your article is very timely. I live in the US mid atlantic in a city, and haven’t had a really good opportunity to see the milky way for several years, but am planning a camping trip next month to a much darker night area. I appreciate articles that may help me make the best use of my current equipment rather than adding more expensive gear to my wish list. Like “bskier7’s” earlier comment, I wondered about using my 35mm, f/1.8 prime lens as well. I figure to try both & see what I like best. I’m looking forward to trying this out! Hope the weather’s clear!

  • Lulu

    Great article–simple straightforward approach to getting started…

    I would also mention that the anti-shake/stabilization be turned off for any long exposure…

    Keep you the great writing!

  • Guest

    Thanks to warmer nights’ I could go check things mentioned in this article. Also thanks for the very nice article that inspired me. Here is my amateur sample. 🙂

  • shruikan

    Thanks to warmer nights’ I could go check things mentioned in this article. Also thanks for the very nice article that inspired me. Here is my amateur sample. 🙂 https://flic.kr/p/s2w8m5 I don’t know why but Discus changes color of the photo so it looks better on Flickr (even when you click on it)… https://flic.kr/p/s2w8m5

  • Absolutely! 35 would work fine too. I have a prime 24mm thats f/1.4 but I lock it in at f/2 to prevent coma in my shot as much as possible. Just remember at 35mm your shutter time will be shorter than if you were using a wider angle. To compensate for the shorter shutter you can crank your iso up more. I usually start at 1250 and then go up from there (because I live in a light polluted area) Your camera model will determine how well it can handle the noise.

  • The 35mm f/1.8 will work but you’ll probably have to stitch multiple shots together to get a large portion of the Milky Way. I did this using a 40mm 1.7 and stiched 3 shots vertically. A fast lens has the bennefit of being able to take the same shot as the kit lens but with a lower ISO and same exposure length, so much less noise.

    https://500px.com/photo/78730645/a-million-eyes-in-the-sky-by-dustin-baugh?from=user_library

  • James

    Thank you for this well written article. I have photographed the milky way with a kit lens but found I had to go up to 3200 iso. Even then I had to bring up the exposure in lightroom. This resulted in alot of noise. It’s okay for viewing on a small scale. I did have issues focusing so will try your technique next time. So it is possible to photograph the milky way with a kit lens, however for best results it’s best to go with a full frame camera and ultra wide f/2.8 lens.

  • Guest

    To help southern hemisphere readers: the south celestial pole is considered to be the sigma star in the Octans constellation. It´s a very faint star and i really recommend having Stellarium installed in your smartphone. It´s not free as the desktop but it´s an invaluable app for night photography planning. Just search for “sigma oct” and it will highlight the star. Point your camera there and shoot. You´ll get the same result as pointing to the north star at the southern hemisphere.

  • Fabio Viero

    To help southern hemisphere readers: the south celestial pole is considered to be the sigma star in the Octans constellation. It´s a very faint star and i really recommend having Stellarium installed in your smartphone. It´s not free as the desktop version, but it´s an invaluable app for night photography planning. Just search for “sigma oct” and it will highlight the star. Point your camera there and shoot. You´ll get the same result as pointing to the north star at the southern hemisphere.

  • I replied an answer to bskier7 on this…I have seen people do 50mm too but it is mainly focused on the galactic bulge due to filling the frame or a pano image. I leave you with a 24mm image. https://500px.com/photo/90434553/echoes-in-the-bleachers-by-patrick-kulwicki?from=user_library

  • Thanks – I’ve now read both answers to bskier7’s question, and looked at your image you linked me to…btw, I really like the 2 “scorpio” photos, with the stars shining above the thunderstorm.

  • Guest

    Great article and thanks for sharing.

  • Thank you very much! Believe or not, they were done with my kit lens 🙂

  • Edmund

    20 seconds for a normal shot without star movement, 30 seconds for star trails?

  • Carly

    Thanks for the detailed article. I have been reading up and want to try astrophotography. I especially would like to shoot the milky way with foreground objects. Do I need to use a sweeping motion with a light to showcase the foreground?

  • Bloke

    That’s 30 seconds, but multiple exposures…

  • Marie Simmons

    Fantastic article! Very helpful and informative. Cannot wait to get out and give it a try. Thank you for sharing.

  • Edmund

    OK, I understand now. Thank you for explaining. Don’t think I will actually be using this technique with the high PS input, seems a little artificial to me.

  • Mehul

    great article!

  • Ajda

    I did this at Lake Tekapo (fantastic location, btw) and all I got was pitch black photos. 🙁 I repeated the same thing next to Ayers Rock…. again, pitch black. Also my manual mode won’t let me go all the way to f/3.5, but will stay at f/4.5. Is that the reason all my astrophotography photos are just rubbish?

  • jhsvdm

    You can use any lens for star trails, preferably a reasonably fast one though. With a wider angle the trails will be visible as concentric circles which is what we usually see in star trail photography. With a longer lens the trails will increasingly present as streaks of light across the sky, the longer the focal length the straighter the lines. You will also get longer trails in every single exposure with a suitably long lens making it easier to experiment and play around with. But to be interesting your picture will need more substance in the rest of the composition

  • Brett Ratell

    I started messing with star photography last summer (I have only my Canon T2i since 2012). When we went on a camping trip Michigan’s UP, I discovered how much better it is without any light pollution around! I was using a Tokina 11-16 2.8 ATX some but the real surprise was my $220 Rokinon 8MM 3.5 Fisheye!

  • Lisa Ann Kelly

    1st time I tried to capture the northern lights from Malin Head in Co. Donegal
    I believe I got Andromeda and part of the milky way. I must return to practice this as I quite like photographing at night.

  • Yes, Andromeda is the (blurry looking star) on the left and milky way is in the middle of the NL moving up to center of frame. Wonderful job!

  • Brian C.

    I actually started this as a hobby just last year and I absolutely love doing it. i use a Nikon D5200 DSLR while using my 18-55mm lens. I use StarStax for my star trails and LR (Lightroom) to processes my pictures and iMovie to use the same pictures to create a time-lapse video of the stars moving. I learn a lot from this group. Great tips! Thanks!!

  • Theena Kumaragurunathan

    Great tutorial. Here’s mine from last weekend.

  • Fer Maranan

    Because of this page, I captured the milky way. Not so good but I am happy on my 1st milky way shot and star trails.

  • Fer Maranan

    Because of this page, I captured the milky way. Not so good but I am happy on my 1st milky way shot and star trails.

  • PJ

    My futile attempt last Saturday night. Of the 120 shots, only half was usable due to clouds and fog. Tagaytay, Philippines.

  • Arif Hussain
  • Thanks for the article, I was wondering how to adapt the shutter speed formula for a Mamiya C330 medium format camera with a 55mm lens.

  • Moosa Khan

    Gr8 thanks for sharing

  • shahrukh mirza

    Just the stars. captured this two weeks backs in olot,spain.

  • Upul Nelundeniya

    it’s my 1st time

  • Krishnendu Sarma

    Wonderful article.. I wasn’t aware of that division by 1.5.Thanks for pointing it out..
    This is one of my night time shoots… Star trails above my home…

  • Krishnendu Sarma

    f/4.5 also should be fine.. If you zoom the lens it will not let you use f/3.5 . normally kit lens will get f/3.5 at 18mm ..and don’t forget to focus something on a distance to set infinity focus . Please be sure that the sky is clear and you can see the stars(atleast some of them ). Keep away from light polution .

    use like this f/4.5 , ISO 2000 , 18mm Shutter Speed 1/20sec .. adjust the shutter speed and ISO according to test shots..good luck mate…happy clicking.

  • Fer Maranan

    My first milkyway shot with kit-lens 18-55mm

  • KerimDoes MC

    I really need some help.. With these settings my picture is white.
    Nikon D5200
    Nikkor 18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6GII
    (My name is NOT this.)

  • Krishnendu Sarma

    This is not the settings .. Its just Camera and Lens Specification .. Please tell us the Metadata used so that we can help..

  • David Casius

    This is a great photo, feels like if was shot from a window on the space station!

  • Phil Coxon

    The best astrophotography tutorial I’ve seen on here!

    Thanks very much.

  • David Lopez

    OmG! Thank you. Just last night I was just shooting at the stars, but of course, had terrible results. I will definitely follow your step. And the kit lens tips help even more since that is what I have.

    You made it feel you wrote this article for me. Since you described the cropped sensor and all. Thank you so very much!

  • Rick Desrochers

    I just started playing with night photography too, Shot this one at night from Sentinel Rock in Vermont, took my phone and put it on flashlight mode to show the crack in the rock, I thought it was kind of cool

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