How to Photograph the Stars

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Photography in general is easy – right? You pick up your camera, point it in the direction of what interests you, and depress the shutter button. However, there are many levels of photography, and I’m sure many of you are aware of the basics.

Today I’m going to focus on something a bit more advanced, photographing the star filled sky, also known as astrophotography.

kayak under the stars.jpg

For astrophotography you will be delving a bit deeper into the use of some of the manual controls of your camera like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO control. I also highly recommend shooting in RAW for night photography, as it will allow more control when editing the final image. If you’re not sure what RAW is and why it is important I wrote a bit about RAW photography here.

Let’s Start With What You’ll Need

  • Tripod – We’re going to be dealing with exposures in the tens of seconds and I don’t care who you are, you’re going to need something to stabilize your camera.
  • A Camera With Manual Controls – Manual control of your ISO and shutter speed are going to be essential for photographing the stars.
  • A Wide Aperture Lens – You’ll need a lot of light and f/2.8 seems to be the butter zone for astrophotography. Combine this with an ultra-wide lens and depth of field won’t be a problem.

With these three pieces of gear you’ll be off to a great start, but of course, there’s a lot more out there that you could potentially add down the line, which I’m sure you can discuss in the comments below.

Location, Location, Location

Now, it’s not enough to just get all the gear, you need to find the right places to photograph the night sky as well. Light pollution is a serious problem for astrophotography and if you’re anywhere near a large city you’re going to have to travel at least an hour to get away from the lights.

I live just outside of Boston MA and am pretty much locked into one of the most light polluted areas of the United States – southern New England.

However, as seen in this image below, even a town of only about 30,000 people and over ten miles away can still result in some obstructive light pollution.

lightpollution.jpg

On top of finding the right location on Earth, you’ll want to have some idea of the location of various stars and constellations for your photography. I use an app called Starwalk for my iPhone to track these down as well as locating the core of the Milky Way, which can be amazing when photographed.

The Basic Set-up

When photographing these tiny pinholes of light you will need as much light to hit your sensor as possible. Therefore it’s important to use combination of high ISO, wide apertures, and long shutter speeds.

For the Kayaks Under the Stars photo above I used an ISO of 1250 an aperture of f/2.8 and an exposure of 30 seconds. As you’ll notice in the bottom right of the photograph there’s a bit of light pollution from a city about 30 minutes away.

One thing to do to try and minimize the light pollution is to find out where it is in a timely manner. To do this I typically will fire off successive shots all around the horizon using an absurdly high ISO (typically the highest my camera will go) simply to limit the time it takes for each shot to expose. These shots won’t be used in the final process, but they are valuable in letting me know which parts of the horizon are off-limits.

As far as exposure time goes, it’s better to keep it as short as possible, otherwise you’ll end up with movement in your stars as the Earth rotates. As an example, my kayak photograph was shot at 30 seconds, which was actually a bit long and if you look closely you can see some movement in the stars.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this can be an extremely cool style of photography in and of itself, referred to most often as creating star-trails like this shot below.

startrailphoto.jpg

There’s a great post here on dPS about shooting star-trails, which you should check out for more information if you’re interesting in creating this kinds of photographs.

Processing the Photo

Processing these night sky photographs can be a bit intimidating, as at first they won’t look like much. As I mentioned above, I’d highly recommend shooting in the RAW format if your camera offers it, as it will allow you to do a lot more when it comes to this step.

BEFORE AND AFTER.jpg

For the shot featured at the top of this post I broke up the photograph into two zones to process, the sky and the foreground. I used LR4’s adjustment tool to selectively tweak each region until I was satisfied with the end result.

For more on how I edited this photograph watch this quick video walkthrough I made of the process.

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John Davenport is the creator of PhoGro - Gro' Your Photography a community that aims to help you grow your photography through engagement with other photographers. John also offers a free email course 6 Weeks to Better Photos that covers the most important elements for getting started with photography.

  • flexoDAONE

    niiice man!

  • Nathan

    where were you at to be able to take this photo?

Some Older Comments

  • Trevor July 29, 2013 12:13 am

    Goodness gracious, forgive me for all of my typos! I guess that's what I get for typing up that comment on a phone.

  • Trevor July 29, 2013 12:09 am

    John,
    Thanks for creating this post; I found it particularly helpful especially with ISO. I had assumed that when taking a long exposure, ISO should be kept to a minimum since when in post, drawing out light from dark areas will only exacerbate noise all the more. I shoot with a d800, so it handles noise pretty well (at least up to 4,000 for my tastes). It's nice to know there's more wiggle room and flexibility than I get it created for.

    My one question is in regard your focusing a landspace seen at f/2.8. Again I would assume that such a shallow depth of field would force you into focusing either on your foreground (kayaks) or background (stars), but both seemed equally sharp, surprising ar f/2.8x Can you account for this? Or better yet: on what did your sensor focus on during this exposure? Did you use manually focus?

    Thanks,
    Trevor

  • Cliff June 17, 2013 04:43 pm

    I am looking to do long exposures to photograph nebulas and such. I have a telescope that has a stardrive on it so startrails are not a problem. I was using a Canon 35mm, but I would like to move to digital. Is there a camera or two you would recommend and is there anything special that I would need to know?

  • Niki June 15, 2013 07:09 am

    Hello, I love your article. But I have a question. I have a D3100 Nikon , with the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G lenses. Do I have a chance for a nice outcome, or I'll totally fail?

  • Jodie May 6, 2013 09:20 am

    Hello! I wanted tos ee if you could advise me on how to FOCUS when doing night photography. If i point my camera to the sky it doesn't want to focus and setting it to manual infinty hasn't been working well for me either! Tips on this please:)

  • Judy Micallef April 22, 2013 04:16 pm

    hi John - thanks for the info. There's a meteor shower tonight (!) and I'd like to have a go...I only have the Canon 500D standard 18-55mm lens. What settings do you suggest?? Thanks

  • Donna March 14, 2013 09:55 pm

    Loved this article! Very informative for someone like me who is just starting out in RAW.

  • Stephanie Dovorany March 5, 2013 04:58 am

    Thank you. This was very easy to understand and well written. I downloaded Start Walk and LOVE it!

  • Matthew Goolsby February 1, 2013 06:22 am

    Great passage and thanks a lot for the tips but you may want to add something about the 600 rule. this is very helpful astrophotgraphy !

  • Diana February 1, 2013 06:11 am

    Thank you so much for this post! Loved the pics :)

  • Trey McNabb September 12, 2012 06:26 am

    John - thanks so much for taking the time to write this article for us. You make it easy to understand and show some of the results that we can get with very little effort. I always look forward to the articles on this site, and yours did not disappoint. Thanks!

  • John September 1, 2012 11:31 pm

    @Victor - I'm sorry I don't really know much about Canon camera's and their settings, but the general principle would be to get as wide an aperture as possible, and as high an ISO as possible before you introduce too much noise, and then expose the photograph for as long as you need to to capture the stars.
    @christine - feel free to contact me through my site!
    @leland - unfortunately with the limitations of available light and how our cameras capture the night sky it's nearly impossible to capture photographs such as the one's I've presented without processing. As Robert stated it's very typical for your night sky photographs to be milky and dull SOOC. If there are ways to capture these kinds of shots without PP I'd be interested in hearing them as well! :)
    @rezwan - thanks for the comment glad you liked the read
    @Robert - thanks for the comment and yes you're very right, light pollution, or just the lack of available light makes it hard to capture the compelling night sky images without processing. Thanks for the comment!

  • Robert Monaghan September 1, 2012 11:48 am

    I take Astronomical photos all the time, and because of light pollution you do need to process your pics in Photoshop, Gimp or some other software to bring out the best of your pic. Your photos from camera can look quite milky from sky light and needs to be processed out. Another helpful tip is dark skies with no moon. unless you are trying to take photos with moon in it.

  • rezwan August 31, 2012 10:28 pm

    That was really helpful. Thanks a lot.

  • Leland August 31, 2012 01:54 pm

    Nice pics but title is misleading. I was hoping in a photo blog info about how to actually photograph stars, not how to rely on computer software to create what should have been achieved in-camera.

  • Christine Rose Miller August 31, 2012 09:46 am

    Hey! I was reading through your website and loved the design and content. Is there any way I could help contribute?

    Thanks,
    Christine

  • Brian Horn August 31, 2012 01:52 am

    The stacking software of choice is Deep Sky Stacker. It 's free to download.

  • Victor August 31, 2012 01:50 am

    Thanks for the article this is really helpfull. I am tryin to do more scenic photographs. Question. I got a new Canon 60D with an EFS 18-200mm. Can't figure out the settings to get a good shot. Any ideas? Thanks!

  • Victor August 31, 2012 01:48 am

    Thanks for this article!! Really helpful.
    Question.
    I just got a brand new Canon 60D with EFS 18-200.
    I can't figure out a way to get the right settings for this. What would you guys recommend?

  • John Davenport August 31, 2012 01:26 am

    @adam - thanks for the compliment glad you liked the read :)

  • Adam Allegro August 29, 2012 11:08 am

    Nice job buddy. Great looking post full of fantastic advice! Well done!

  • Rajesh Nattuvetty August 26, 2012 05:25 pm

    Thank you for sharing for the wonderful article and great advise. I am into travel and photography and wanted to try something different.... astrophotgrahy seem to be very interesting to me, and I should give it a try. i 've never headr of ligh pollution before , this would be a veru valuable information. hopeing to test my Sigma 8 - 16 mm on D 7000, till I get a Nikkor 14 - 24mm for my D 800. Love your pics and star trails.

    @ cheryl thanks for the tips.

  • John August 26, 2012 12:06 am

    @cheryl - Great additional tips to the article - Thanks for sharing :)

  • Cheryl from Chicago August 25, 2012 07:47 pm

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience. I'd like to add a helpful technique to more accurately determine the shutter speed for freezing stars. For full-frame sensors (for film cameras and some newer digital cameras), use the following formula to get the shutter speed: =600/lens focal length. Thus if you were using an 18mm lens, the shutter speed should be 33 seconds (or faster). However, as noted, this is for a full frame sensor. Since most digital cameras have cropped sensors, you need to make an adjustment. For my Nikon D7000, an 18mm digital lens is equivalent to a 27mm lens on a film camera; thus 600/27 equals 22 seconds. Therefore, determining shutter speed for freezing stars depends on the the focal length of the lens and the degree of sensor crop on a digital camera.

  • HB August 25, 2012 12:58 pm

    oops sorry about the spelling mistakes ;)

  • HB August 25, 2012 12:55 pm

    Gorgeous pictures. I love astrophotography. Thanks for the great tips.
    I once read an article somewhere on using special software to stacking dozens (even hundreds) of 10second exopures. It had the advantage of getting really long exposures while limiting noise.
    It could also be used to get high dynamic range pictures without the embossing effect that you get with tone mapping.
    Wish I could remember where I read it.

  • John Velocci August 25, 2012 07:01 am

    sorry wrong article

  • John Velocci August 25, 2012 06:58 am

    with that startrails software, can you combine pictures other than those of stars? for example lets so you keep your camera on a tripod and you put the camera in burst mode and stake sever pictures of someone running by the camera. can you combine those pictures into one shot where you see the person several times in the same picture?

  • Jai Catalano August 25, 2012 05:55 am

    I actually thought you meant stars. How to photograph Brad Pitt and JLo stars.

    These are really cool photos but it appears the blonde hair on my head got the better of me.

  • Elizabeth August 25, 2012 04:29 am

    All I can say is WOW! When I get the right stuff (lens, software) This is the first thing I want to try. I am in love with your pictures and what a wonderful article! Thanks so much.

    http://www.livingdisney.com/2012/08/photographs-of-week-820-826-2012.html

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