As long as humans have walked the Earth, we have always been awestruck by the stars. As technology has advanced, we have gained the capability to capture the beauty of these celestial beings with our cameras. However, astrophotography takes time and practice in order to achieve the breathtaking results we’re accustomed to seeing, so don’t get frustrated if you don’t nail it the first time around.
It’s also important to note that there isn’t an exact camera setting for photographing the night sky due to the amount atmospheric light which is available in your area. So, to help you capture beautiful images while seeing the world in a whole new light, here are some tips to help you shoot for the stars.
Gear and Equipment
You are going to need a camera which allows you to manually control the shutter speed, the aperture and the ISO. An point-and-shoot won’t get you the results you desire.
You will need a lens with a large aperture (the ‘f’ number printed on the lens barrel). This is going to control the amount of light which comes in through your lens. A lens with an aperture of f2 or smaller (like f1.2) is a great option.
A sturdy tripod will be a necessity. Since you are going to be shooting long exposures, your camera will need to stay incredibly still for a given period of time (any camera shake will result in blurry photos).
This isn’t essential but it’s a handy tool to have in the camera bag. It will help to avoid camera shake when you push the shutter release button. If you don’t have a remote trigger, use the timer function on your camera to delay taking the photo by 2 – 10 seconds to alleviate camera movement when the photo is taken. You can also use the remote trigger to engage the bulb setting on your camera which will allow you to shoot exposures longer than 30 seconds.
If you want to add some detail to your in-camera image, this is a great item to have. You can use a flashlight during long exposures to “paint in” the subjects in the foreground of your image (such as lighting up a tree or some rocks).
The location is very important when it comes to astrophotography. You’ll want to find the darkest location possible, which means you want to avoid being near big cities or small towns with light pollution. If you don’t want to spend the night driving aimlessly, check out the International Dark Sky Places Program for locations near you.
Using a long exposure time (i.e.: slow shutter speed) is imperative when doing astrophotography. This will give your camera’s sensor enough time to capture the distant starlight. A good exposure time to start is between 20 seconds and 30 seconds. If you want to avoid star trails, use the rule of 600. What’s the rule of 600? Well, since we are stationary in our position on earth, as the earth spins, the stars will very slowly move across the sky in front of our camera (which will cause the stars to create a trail of light). These photos can be incredibly beautiful, but if you want to avoid that style of photography, divide 600 by the focal length you are shooting at. Many astrophotographers shoot at 16mm to fit as many stars in the shot as possible, so their equation is 600/16 = 37.5 (which means they can use a shutter speed of 37 seconds before the stars begin to create trails in the photo). If your aim is to capture star trails, it may help to take a series of photos, one immediately after the other. You may find it helpful to take a series of 100 photos and create the star trail in post-processing.
When it comes to setting your aperture, it’s best to shoot as wide as your lens allows (the smallest ‘f’ number). This will let the largest amount of light in to your camera sensor.
Your ISO will usually range anywhere from 800 – 2000 for astrophotography. Try to use a slower shutter speed (longer exposure time) and keep your ISO towards the lower end of the scale. This will allow you to shoot with a lower ISO (which will prevent noise (colored dots) on the image).
When it comes to focusing, you will want to set your lens to manual focus and adjust it to infinity (most lenses have a mark which tells you what infinity is). This is always a good option when shooting distant objects. Once set, take a photo and zoom in on the stars using the LCD panel and magnifying glass button on the back of the camera. If it’s not 100% sharp, try adjusting the focus slightly, and take another shot (repeat until the stars are in focus). If you want to focus on a tree or subject in the foreground, set the camera to auto-focus, point the flashlight at the subject to light it and focus until your camera tells you that focus has been achieved. Then, switch back to manual focus (without moving the focusing ring).
Some lenses have this option and some don’t. If your lens has a stabilization control, switch it off when shooting long exposures with a tripod. Doing this prevents the camera/lens from continually trying to auto-stabilize any shake. Since the tripod is already stabilizing the camera, this will lead to sharper photos.
Don’t be disappointed if the images on the back of the camera don’t look exactly like the images you have previously seen. When it comes to astrophotography, a lot of the magic will happen in post-processing. This is where you can adjust settings like highlights, the black clipping, the exposure, and clarity to really help those stars shine.
If you took a series of star photos to create star trails, import all the photos into Lightroom and apply your desired adjustments to a single image. Then, sync the adjustments applied to the single image across the other images in the series and import them into Photoshop as layers. Once they are all imported, highlight all the images, adjust the setting from normal to lighten in the layer’s tab and ta-da! There are your light trails!
With these tips and a bit of patience, you can truly make astrophotography your own and create some frame-worthy pieces! Who knows, with a bit of practice (and post processing) you could be the next Peter Lik. If you have any astrophotographs you’d like to show off, let me know in the comments below!