Ever since I got my first DSLR camera back in 2018 I wanted to try and photograph the stars. I got my first opportunity in February 2018 while in Australia and was super excited. I propped my camera up on a table with my wallet and pointed it at the sky. Then, without knowing what I was doing, began taking photographs while frantically changing settings until I got something that resembled stars. As you can see below, it didn’t quite go too well! At the time I was happy with the photo but as I learnt more about photography, I realised it could all have been much better with a little research.
So, to give you a head start and not make the mistakes I did I have put together 13 quick tips that have worked well and have helped me take better photographs of the stars. I hope you find them useful!
1. Location (find a dark sky)
I live in London so light pollution is a real problem, and if you want to photograph the stars you really need to avoid. The reason you want to avoid light pollution is because it overpowers the night sky. In photography, this presents a problem because your camera will capture the light from the city rather than the sky. This makes it next to impossible to photograph the stars in these conditions. So, it is important you find a location which does not have much/any light pollution. This may mean you need to drive a considerable distance away from your home depending on where you live. I normally drive towards the coast (Dorset, Eastbourne) as there are several dark skies there.
To help you find a dark sky there are several websites you can use. If you are in the UK, the first I’d recommend is Darkskydiscovery which shows all the certified dark skies in the country. If you are from outside of the UK, another good website is DarkSiteFinder. This website shows light pollution levels across the world which will help you find locations with low levels of light pollution.
2. Understand the moon cycle
In the same way we want to avoid light pollution, we also want to avoid moon light. It has the same effect as light pollution on our ability to see and photograph the stars, even in the darkest skies. I experienced this on a trip to Kielder and didn’t fully appreciate the affect the moon light would have. As you can see from the photo below it looks like it was taken during the day despite it being 1am. Some moon light isn’t a bad thing as it can help light your foreground. My advice however would be to avoid anything more than a waxing or waning crescent (1/4 moon at each end of the cycle). More than this will significantly reduce your ability to photograph the stars and Milky Way.
3. Check the weather
Once you have decided on a location and chosen a date that fits with the moon cycle, the next thing to do is to check the weather. Ideally you want to be shooting into clear skies. This will get you the clearest photographs of the stars and Milky Way. A few clouds in the sky isn’t the end of the world. They can lead to some interesting photographs, but my preference would always be clear skies. Clouds do pose a few problems when trying to photograph the stars. Firstly, they cover the night sky and block our view of the stars. Secondly, they reflect light which can make the sky brighter than it would otherwise be on a clear night.
One final point on this is to check multiple sources for the weather. Don’t rely on one source for the weather at a location. I’ve been caught out on a couple of occasions where I’ve relied on a single weather app for conditions. My advice here would be to use a few weather sources, but also look at cloud cover forecasts. Combining these sources will give you the most accurate view of the conditions you are likely to experience.
4. Have an idea of the photograph you want to take
Before you get to a location, it is good to have an idea of the kind of photograph you want to take. To help you think about this you can break this down into a few areas. The first area is the type of star photograph you want to take. Do you want a star trail photograph? Do you want to photograph the Milky Way, or do you want to photograph a specific constellation? Secondly, think about the other elements you want in your photograph. These could be things in the foreground like trees, or something like a hut or a car to give scale to your image.
By thinking about what you want from your image in advance, you’ll be able to think about how to achieve it more methodically. You will have a clearer idea of things such as the settings you should use; what the best location will be and at what time; whether you need multiple exposures, and if so, what they going to be used for in the final image. This is a much better approach than simply turning up and deciding at the time.
5. Arrive at your location before it’s dark
Once you have decided on your location one useful tip is to arrive an hour or two before it gets dark. This is doubly true if you haven’t been to a location before. By doing this, you are giving yourself plenty of time to explore and find some interesting areas to photograph from. There is nothing worse than arriving at a location in complete darkness and having no idea where you should be setting up.
Hopefully, if you have followed the tip above, you will already have some ideas for your photograph. To help you with the composition of your image while there is still day light, you want to use an app such as Skyview. Apps like this let you pick a date and time and see exactly where things will be in the sky. You can then use the AR feature to look around and see exactly how what you want to photograph lines up with your location. This allows you to set up your chosen composition while there is still daylight, removing the hassle from doing it in the dark.
By arriving early, you give yourself the best possible opportunity to get the photograph you really want.
6. You need to use a camera with manual mode
Before we get into some of the more technical tips for photographing the stars, the first thing to note is that you need to use a camera with manual mode. Sorry folks, automatic mode is not going to cut it here. This means a camera that allows you to set the ISO, aperture and shutter speed yourself. You will find the “M” mode on most modern DSLR and Mirrorless cameras. It is not as scary as it sounds, trust me. Once you have a good understanding of some of the key rules and concepts, you’ll realise the hardest part about all of this is not taking the photographs but getting the right conditions. Taking the actual photographs is the easy bit!
To photograph the stars, you’ll need to use a combination of rules and concepts. One of the most important rules for photographing the stars is the “Rule of 500”.
7. Understand the rule of 500
The rule of 500 is one of the most important rules when it comes to photographing the stars. What this rule does is tell you, based on your chosen camera and lens, the MAXIMUM shutter speed you can use before you experience star trailing. Now why is this important I hear you ask? It is important because we want the stars to be pin sharp and not streaky little lines. If you want to create star trail photographs however, you can use this rule to see the shutter speed you need to exceed in order to create star trails.
Let’s take a closer look at the rule of 500:
Shutter Speed = (500 / Focal Length)* Crop Factor
The focal length refers to the mm setting on your chosen lens. If I am using my Fujinon 16-55mm F2.8 set at 16mm, 16 would be the number I would use in this formula.
The crop factor is specific to the size of the sensor in the camera you are using. Full frame cameras have a crop factor of 1 due to the sensor being the same size as a 35mm piece of film. APS-C or crop sensor cameras have a crop factor of between 1.5 and 1.6. In Micro 4/3s cameras the crop factor is usually 2. I use a Fuji X-T3 which has an APS-C sensor so the crop factor for my camera would be 1.5. If you are unsure of what type of sensor your camera has, Google is your best friend here.
To give you a better understanding of how to put these values together, I’ve created a table below to show some examples of the formula in action:
|Camera Type||Crop Factor||Focal Length||Formula||Max Shutter Speed|
|Full Frame||1||18mm||(500/18)/1= 27 Seconds||27 Seconds|
|APS-C||1.5||18mm||(500/18)/1.5= 18 Seconds||18 Seconds|
|Micro 4/3s||2||18mm||(500/18)/2= 13 Seconds||13 Seconds|
|Smartphone||6||18mm||(500/18)/6 = 4 Seconds||4 Seconds|
|ASP-C||1.5||12mm||(500/12)/1.5 = 27 Seconds||27 Seconds|
As you can see from the table above, the combination of camera and lens can have a dramatic effect on the shutter speed you can use. Full Frame cameras typically allow you to have a longer shutter speed when compared to crop sensor cameras. Paired with the right lens however, a crop sensor camera can still achieve comparable shutter speeds as seen in the 12mm example above. A smartphone should never be used to photograph the stars due to the crop factor and short shutter speed. It just isn’t possible to get enough light into the sensor to come out with a usable photograph.
Experiment with the formula above and work out the maximum shutter speed you can use.
8. Use the fastest wide-angle lens you have
As we established in the tip above, using a wide focal length means we get a much longer shutter speed. This next tip however is about maximising the amount of light your camera can capture during that time frame. By maximising the amount of light captured the more detail we have of the stars and the Milky Way. To do this you need to use a lens which gives you both a long shutter speed, but also has a fast aperture so you can capture as much light as possible. A typical kit lens such as an 18-55mm has a max aperture of f3.5 at 18mm. This is a good starting point if this is the only lens you own.
If you want to maximise the amount of detail you can capture you should look to invest in a wider focal length lens with a faster aperture (f2.8 or less). For my Fuji X-T3 something that fits this description would be the Samyang 12mm f2. This lens would give me 10 seconds of additional shutter speed, allow me to capture significantly more of the stars/Milky Way because of the wider focal length, and captures double the amount of light due to the f2 aperture. This would result allow me to capture significantly more detail compared to a standard kit lens.
9. Don’t be scared to crank up your ISO (but don’t go crazy!)
One common misconception is the higher your ISO, the more noise you will get in your photograph. This is true in most types of photography, but for photographing the stars we must treat it a bit different. Without getting too technical this is all down to the signal-to-noise ratio in our photographs. This is the ratio of signal to noise in an image, with light being the signal and noise coming from the amplification of the signal by the camera’s sensor. For a clean low noise photograph you need a high signal to noise ratio.
Let’s take a situation such as photographing a moving person in low light. You will need to increase your ISO to maintain a fast shutter speed as to avoid motion blur and get a good exposure. But by doing so you will decrease your signal to noise ratio because you are exchanging light amplification aka noise. If the person was not moving, rather than increasing the ISO, you could decrease the shutter speed to allow for more light. This would then increase your signal-to-noise ratio resulting in a cleaner image.
In astrophotography this works the same, but you need to think about it a bit differently. The amount of light we can get into the camera is limited by our maximum aperture and maximum shutter speed. The only setting that we can change is the ISO. You might be thinking “surely setting the ISO at 100 will give the widest signal-to-noise ratio?” This is true, but your resulting image will be heavily under exposed. Attempting to correct this in Lightroom for example by increasing the exposure will result in a nosier image than if you had used a higher ISO. It is all about getting the right exposure with the highest signal-to-noise ratio possible in Astrophotography, because we do not have the option of adding more light.
From a practical perspective, the best way to determine the right ISO for you to use is to take a series of test shots on the night. Start with your max shutter speed and aperture, with your ISO at 800 and increase this by one stop for each photograph (1600, 3200, 6400). Compare these against each other to see which gives you the most detailed image and has the most acceptable level of noise. You will quickly work out where the sweet spot is for your camera. When I photograph the stars, I generally use an ISO of either 1600 or 3200. Don’t be too worried about the noise in your photographs at this stage. There are ways of reducing noise and increasing detail in post processing which will be discussed in a tip towards the end of this post.
10. Use a Tripod
From understanding the rule of 500, we know we are going to be using some long shutter speeds to photograph the stars. Therefore, handholding your camera is not an option and a tripod is a must have. Regarding tripods, always buy the best one you can afford. A tripod is something that you can use for a long time over multiple cameras so buying a quality one is always a good investment. As I said in my post on the 16 must have camera accessories for beginner photographers, the first tripod I purchased was a cheap one from Amazon and it was quickly replaced. This was mainly down to its poor build quality and unsteadiness resulting in quite a few blurred photographs. Cheap tripods tend to be unstable due to their lightweight materials and design. This makes them prone to vibrations and movement which will cause blur in your photos, especially when shooting long exposures. I replaced my cheap Amazon tripod with a Manfrotto Element Traveller and the difference in quality is massive.
11. Shoot in RAW
I like to think of astrophotography as 30% location and condition planning, 20% photography, and 50% post processing. Therefore, taking your photographs of the stars in RAW format as opposed to JPEG is very important.
While there is absolutely nothing stopping you photographing the stars in JPEG, you will really get the most out of your photographs using RAW. If you aren’t familiar with RAW, it is essentially a file format that records all the light information from the sensor when you take a photograph. Unlike a JPEG, where the data is transposed into an image and compressed by the camera losing information in the process, RAW files retain all the information. This allows you to produce higher quality photographs using a RAW editor like Lightroom. By keeping all the information, a photo editor like Lightroom can allow you to perform edits and produce photographs that are simply not possible using JPEG.
12. Use Live View and Manual Focus
One of the challenges with trying to photograph the stars is getting them sharp. Unfortunately, your cameras autofocus system is not going to help you here. So, in order to get the best results possible, we are going to have to use manual focus.
There are a few methods for using manual focus that you can use:
- If your lens has an infinity focus mark on it (which looks like this ∞) you can simply rotate your focus ring to this to achieve infinity focus. In a lot of cases this will get you 95% of the way to sharp stars in your photographs. However, on several lenses I’ve used the infinity marker hasn’t always been 100% accurate for the stars. If you want to guarantee pin sharp stars move on to the second tip below.
- Using live view on your camera, point your camera at the brightest star or planet you can see in the sky (such as Polaris or Mars). Zoom into this object as far as you can on the back screen and adjust the manual focus ring until it is completely sharp on the screen.
In all the photographs I have taken of the stars, I have always used method 2 and have found it to be the most reliable for me.
13. Stack Images instead of using in Camera Noise Reduction
One of the issues of using a high ISO and long shutter speed to photograph the stars is the noise that comes from doing so. Your camera will likely have something called “long exposure noise reduction” to combat this. However, this isn’t the best solution so I would recommend turning this feature off. This is because it doubles the length of time to take a photo as the camera needs to take a second exposure with the shutter closed. This is to emulate long exposure noise so it can be taken away from your initial image. While this does reduce noise it also reduces the detail in your photograph. However, by taking a series of exposures and stacking them, you can not only reduce noise, but significantly increase the amount of detail in your photograph at the same time.
There are several programs that can help you do this depending on what platform you are using. If you are using a Mac, I’ve seen people talk about Starry Landscape Stacker which costs £38.99 from the App store. As I am on Windows, I use a free program called Deep Sky Stacker which does the same thing. To do stacking effectively, you need to take three types of photograph which are: Light Frames, Dark Frames, and Bias Frames. These can then be combined in one of these programs to create an image which has significantly more detail and less noise. This image can then be processed in a photo editor such as Lightroom or Photoshop to create the final image.
I won’t go into all the detail on what each type of frame is or how to take them in this post. If you want to learn more, check out my previous post on how I photographed the Milky Way from last year. In this post, I explain each of the different frame types and how to take them.
So, there you have it, 13 tips to help you take better photographs of the stars. If you have any questions about anything mentioned here or just photography in general, leave a comment down below. If you have used these tips and have found them useful, it would be amazing if you could share this post.
Until next time!
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