OUTDOORS

How to Photograph Stars: A Beginner’s Guide

Dennis Owens
Written by Dennis Owens

The magic of the starry skies is guaranteed to take your breath away on any given day or night. If you have ever tried to capture what you see with a telescope or with your naked eye, then you probably already know that it is not as easy as it may seem.

The problem is that although you would always try so hard to capture the moment, the results might not be satisfactory. If you don’t know how to photograph stars the right way, you will end up with a blurry image and a cruel reminder that you have failed.

But don’t panic just yet. We are here to offer you with the best tips and techniques that have been put to test by the most professional photographers out there.

sky full of stars

You might not be as experienced as you would like to be, just yet. But you need to understand that practice makes perfect. Today’s rookie is tomorrow’s expert, provided that they follow the right steps and methods.

Taking the first steps

There is nothing that resembles the majesty of the night sky with the stars that shine like a diamond. This is why it always represents a great temptation to everybody who is not into photography.

Even if you are a regular camper and have never held a professional camera before, you would probably be intrigued to hold up your phone to take a photo that is supposed to catch the beauty of the moment.

Unfortunately, the results might not be as satisfactory. You might end up with a pitch black photo that looks like nothing that you can see with your eyes.

bad attempt photographing stars

At the same time, you will feel quite frustrated since you know that there must be something that you are doing wrong. Or you could end up with a blurry image that doesn’t capture any beauty that you can see and sense.

There are a lot of high-quality and purely amazing night sky pictures that show the magic of our Milky Way or how the different planets shine in the night sky. If you have ever wondered how these wonderful photos are taken then you’ve come to the right place.

The first and most important thing that you need to take into consideration is: preparation. That’s right. Being well prepared with the right equipment, tools and mind set will enable you to take professional quality night photos that show off the beauty and rhythm of the night.

Using the right equipment

Let’s say that you are really hungry. You have got a great recipe that you can cook right now; you can even smell it and taste the delicious flavor. Unless you have the right ingredients and utensils, this recipe will unfortunately stay in your imagination.

photography equipment

The same goes for taking photographs of the stars. Unless you have the suitable and appropriate tools and equipment, you will end up frustrated every single time.

Tripod

Can you build a building without any foundations? No. The same goes for photography. You need to start with investing in a high quality, stable and sturdy tripod that you can set to take the best shots of the jewels of the night.

A cheap or poorly built tripod will shake or move as you set it up over the long exposure time that you need to take a beautiful and professional image of the night sky.

camera tripods

As a result, you might end up with blurry or shaky images even though you think you have done everything you need to do. Make sure that your tripod is well set and that will help you get a stable image that will not disappoint you.

Appropriate camera

It is no brainer that your camera will be one of the most important tools that you need on your quest. A good camera will have special features that you need as you take a picture of the stars.

First, a camera that can be manually adjusted will be more convenient to use. You will be able to manually choose the exposure time and aperture for the best image quality.

Shooting stars is different from shooting landscape where you need to have more depth of field. The truth is that you need to choose a lower aperture as you are focusing on the infinity. Most of the time you could do just fine with a 30 seconds shutter speed, provided that you use a rock solid tripod to keep your camera in position.

startrails

If you go for a higher shutter speed, your stars might start to look more elongated due to the rotation of the Earth. Choosing the shutter speed will also depend on the lens you are using. As a rule of thumb, the longer the lens, the shorter the shutter speed will be.

Shooting star trails requires using long exposure. An exposure of around 45 minutes will be appropriate to take a clear shot of star trails. A lower ISO again will prove useful since it will lower the noise. You might need to practice with different exposure times to get the image quality that you want.

Since your camera can be manually adjusted, you might want to stick to low ISO. This will prevent your photos from becoming too grainy. If the lowest ISO on your camera is still too high, there is still a trick that you can do to minimize the noise in your picture.

You can work on long exposure noise reduction feature that you can basically find on any DSLR out there. Because there is barely any light out there for your camera to autofocus, you will always have to adjust the focus yourself.

camera focus lens

You can work on this problem by focusing on any light that you can find available provided that it is at the same distance away from you as you want your focus to be. After adjusting the focus using this light, you can change the focus mode to manual where it will be kept as the last time you set it.

Some cameras feature a full frame which can be quite handy if you are after professional photos of the night. Full frame cameras are great at reducing the noise that is usually associated with high ISO and provide higher quality images.

Wide angle lens

This is not a necessary item but can greatly improve your experience if you don’t know how to photograph stars like a professional. A wide angle lens will allow you to capture the biggest amount of light over the shortest period of time. Wide angle lenses also work to capture great landscape photos.

Patience

This might strike you as weird but patience is something that you need to pack when you are trying to get a high-quality picture of the night.

Photographer Silhouette At Night

You will probably have to wait for the right weather and choose the proper location so that you can take a great picture of the starry night. Practice and patience will allow you to get over frustration.

Getting ready

Now that you are all set, it is time to plan your trip to the wilderness. You will have to be prepared for spending some time in the open in order to take great photos of the night sky. It is important to do some preparation before you reach your shooting destination. This will minimize frustration and will make the experience so much more fun.

Calculating the moon phase

If you want to capture the beauty of the Milky Way, then you need to make sure that you have well calculated the moon phase. Milky Way photography is best around the night of the New Moon, give or take 1 week before or after.

person-standing-under-the-milky-way

Of course, understanding the constraints of where you live and the time of the year can have a great impact on the quality of your photos.

Check the map

White areas on the map are full of light. In other words, they are light polluted and will not allow you to capture the beauty of the sky. Not the way you want to, anyway. Dark areas are more appropriate if you want to know how to photograph stars like professionals since they will provide a clearer view.

Check the weather

A cloudy night might not be your best bet. Make sure that you are choosing a night that will have zero to very few clouds as you will be able to catch the light from the stars on your camera.

Use apps

It is only smart to use technology to your favor, especially if you want to get the best results. There are some great apps that you can use to get the best photos and properly prepare for your shooting session.

google earth app on phone

Google Earth and Google Maps help you get an idea about the layout of the location where you plan to set up your shooting session, including information about the terrain and the nature of the area. This will help you prepare the right clothes and gear that you can take along on your trip.

There are professional apps like Stellarium that will help you precisely locate the Milky Way if you are a bit confused. This app will show a realistic image of the night sky in 3D with accurate and precise images that resembles what you can see with your naked eye on a clear night.

How to photograph stars like a pro

In order to learn how to take pictures of stars, you need to adjust the focus of your camera. Before doing so, you will not be able to take any good photos.

Most cameras will have an infinity focus (∞) setting that is meant to take very sharp pictures of the starry night. Although the setting might not be enough, but you can easily start from this setting to get to the right focus.

infinity focus on camera

Focusing your camera during the day might be easier especially if you are not sure about how to focus your camera at night. You can start at your home or anywhere you like before you plan on taking night or low light photos.

You can make more adjustments using the focus ring. You can start by taking different photos choosing different aperture to make sure that your photo is in focus.

Now that everything is set, it is time to shoot. To avoid the camera shake, you can use a remote control to press the shutter. This will ensure that your image will be stable and not blurry.

If you don’t have a remote control that will allow you to press the shutter, you can definitely set you camera on a timer. This way you will be able to control the camera without ever having to touch it yourself.

canon shutter remote control

Now it is time to review your photos. Looking at your photos will allow you to look for areas of improvement and will help you get better images next time. If you can’t see a lot of stars, then your exposure might not be long enough.

This might also be the result of using a very high ISO. This will lead to a lot of light pollution that will make your image of less quality.

Using a lower ISO will allow you to capture sharper images of the stars where they don’t turn into trails. You can also choose to take two different photos; one on a lower ISO and longer shutter speed and another one that freezes the stars.

You can later choose to combine both photos in your favorite photo editor program and you will be able to get the image that you have always wanted.

milky way and trees

Trial and error is the best way to take better photos. You are not expected to master taking high-quality pictures at the first glance. You might need to go through some practice and the results will always keep on improving.

Conclusion

Taking high-quality night photos of the stars is not something that happens by chance. It takes a lot of practice and training to take great photos but your patience will certainly pay off. Capturing the magic of the night sky can be tricky especially if you don’t know how to photograph stars the right way.

There is no problem in trying over and over again until you get the image you have always wanted. It is a lot of work but the results will always be amazing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dennis Owens
Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.

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