Star photography takes a lot of patience and precision. Before reading, please consider searching this website for articles dealing with aperture, shutter speed, and ISO — or to save some time, simply click on the “Back to Basics” page above. It is absolutely critical that you understand these components of photography, before you dedicate time to shooting the stars. Now, enough with the per-cautionary jargon, let’s get started!
- Camera (…of course)
- Sturdy Tripod (absolutely key to success!)
- Shutter Release Remote
- Flashlight (make sure it emanates red light)
- Hand Warmers (depending on the climate)
- Rubber Bands (only if hand warmers are needed)
The first step in star photography is finding a location suitable for overnight stay that is very far away from sources of light pollution. To help you find such a location, a ‘dark sky finder’ has been created, and can be found here. I recommend that you try and find the closest possible spot that’s in the blue/non colored zones. This might require you to travel rather far, due to the sad nature of the modernized world, but trust me, it’s well worth the journey. Locations that are far away from sources of light pollution, allow you to see the milky-way more clearly, and will make it much easier for your camera to pick up the stars in your photographs. If you have ever been in a city at night, you will understand how awful light pollution can be.
After you find yourself a suitable location, it’s time to take some pictures. Travel to your predetermined destination early, and try to arrive roughly before sunset. This will allow you to set up your equipment, and frame your shot, before it gets too dark to see. If you do find yourself using a flashlight, make sure it has a red filter on the front — if it doesn’t already shine red light. Red light will not ruin your night vision, and will not disturb any nearby people — astronomers especially. Also, keep in mind that you want to go on a night with little to no moon. The moon is a natural source of light pollution, and will make it very hard to see the milky way.
Put your camera on a tripod, and check to make sure that it does not shake. Attach your shutter release remote, frame your shot, and wait for the sun to go down. Once you see the stars in all of their glory, simply start taking pictures. The setup, as you can see, is very simple, but read on for some tips dealing with exposure.
Note: If the place you are photographing gets cold overnight, it is very handy to have a set of hand-warmers. The hand-warmers are not for your hands, they are for your camera — but definitely bring some for yourself as well. Place a hand warmer on the top of your camera, and one on your lens — secure it with rubber bands if need be. The hand warmers will help prevent condensation from forming on your lens, and will also help your camera battle the colder conditions.
Exposing the night sky correctly can be a tough ordeal. I definitely recommend you have a lens with an aperture less than, or equal to, 3.5. Exposing the night sky is essentially one big battle for light, your equipment versus the sky. Set your lens to the widest open aperture it can go — keeping in mind that some zoom lenses change aperture as they are zoomed in or out. Set your ISO in accordance to how much noise you desire — or rather how much noise you do not desire –, but keep in mind, that the lower the ISO, the longer your exposure will have to be. While this may not seem like a huge compromise — you’re using a tripod, who cares about long exposures, right? — it actually is. Here is the reason why: if you expose for too long, you will start seeing star trails in your picture. The star trails won’t be long enough to create an interest in your photo, and they will not be short enough to go unseen by the naked eye. It will be a rather distracting effect. To help keep track of how long you can expose for without obtaining star trails, the — very general — rule of 600s was created. Here is what it states:
(600)/(Focal Length of Lens)=(Maximum exposure time, before seeing star trails)
The rule of 600s was created for full-frame cameras, so if you are using a crop-sensored camera, please do the focal length conversion. Let me show you an example:
Camera: 60D (Crop factor of 1.6x)
Lens: Vivitar 13mm
As you can see from the example, using a Canon 60D with the Vivitar 13mm lens, I will be able to shoot for a total of 29 seconds before star trails become visible in my pictures. The crop factors for Nikon and Canon cameras are different. I found out the Canon 60D’s crop factor by searching google. You can see how this rule of 600s can be useful. In order to capture the milky way without capturing star trails, you will have to use the rule of 600s. Once you find out your maximum exposure time, you can then set your ISO in accordance with how exposed you want your picture to be.
- Keep in mind the weather conditions, and prepare for them!
- Focus at infinity or slightly before infinity.
- Go on a cloudless night.
- Remember the moon cycles.
- Bring some blankets, or other comforts to help you stay comfortable.
- Enjoy the scenery.
- Bring a friend!
I hope you found this article to be useful. If you have any comments, critiques, or suggestions, please leave a comment! If I made a mistake somewhere, I would really appreciate it if you could notify me. Thank you for taking the time to read this article, now go out there and have fun!