How to Take Pictures of Stars
If you’re a photography enthusiast, you may have some experience taking portraits, cityscapes or landscapes. There’s literally a whole new world of photography ready for you to enjoy: taking photos of the stars at night, also known as astrophotography. If you’ve never taken star photos before, you’ll find it to be an exciting and fascinating area to explore.
Some of the advanced features of your camera you’ll be using may be new to you. Don’t worry, we’ll give you all the information you’ll need in a way that’s easy to understand. With a little practice, you’ll produce stunning star photos worthy of framing and hanging on the wall.
The Equipment: What You’ll Need
Before we start, let’s go over the gear you’ll need.
You’ll need a sturdy, well-built tripod for taking photos at night. A cheap tripod just won’t cut it. You’ll be taking long exposures, and the tripod will need to hold the camera steady without shaking. While we can’t recommend specific tripods here, expect to pay about $400 for a good tripod. Two brands you may want to look at are Really Right Stuff and 3 Legged Thing.
Remote Shutter Release
Pressing the shutter will cause the camera to shake. Using your camera’s timer will eliminate shake, but you may prefer to use a remote shutter release. The manufacturer may make a shutter release for your model or you can look for an inexpensive aftermarket shutter release.
Camera with Manual Mode
You’ll need to control the ISO, aperture setting and exposure time, so a camera with manual controls will be essential for star photography. A full-frame camera that can shoot RAW format is preferable, but not essential.
Ideally, you should use a wide-angle, non-zoom lens. Any wide-angle lens will work, but you’ll get the best results with a lens between 14mm and 20mm for full frame cameras, and between 10mm and 17mm for crop sensor lenses. The lens will need to let in a lot of light, so use one with an aperture between f/2.8 and f/4.
A Clear Night and a Dark Sky
The phase of the moon, the weather and the orientation of the sky are important factors when photographing stars at night.
In most cases, you’ll want to avoid light from the moon. The best times to shoot are from one week before to one week after the New Moon. You can check the moon’s phase online or use Star Date’s Moon Calculator for results specific to your area.
Check the weather for the night you want to shoot to make sure the sky will be clear. If the forecast calls for clouds, fog, or haze, choose another evening.
You’re going to need a dark sky for your star photos. If you live in or near a major city, the lights from the city will wash out the stars. Check the Blue Marble Light Pollution Map or Dark Sky Finder and find a dark location nearby.
Photographing the Milky Way
You can take a photograph any group of stars, but taking a photo of the Milky Way will yield dramatic results.
Locating the Milky Way
The Milky Way is difficult to see with the naked eye. Stellarium is a free open source planetarium app for your desktop computer that will show you the arrangement of the stars. Sky Guide is an iOS app that will allow you to use your iPhone to identify the stars (including the Milky Way) while you’re out in the field.
You have your gear, checked the moon and weather, and found a location free from light pollution. Now it’s time to take your first star picture. The key to getting the perfect shot is experimentation and practice.
Start with a shutter speed of 30 seconds. This is the longest exposure you can use before the stars start to look oblong due to the Earth’s rotation. The longer the lens, the shorter the shutter speed you’ll be able to use before star trails become noticable. Cameras with crop sensors will most likely need to shoot at shorter shutter speeds, typically 15 or 20 seconds. Check the viewfinder to review the results and adjust the shutter speed accordingly. If you’d like to create images where the stars leave trails, try long shutter speeds of a minute or more.
Set the aperture to the lowest f-stop on your lens, ideally f/2.8 or lower.
Shoot at the lowest ISO setting that will give you a bright image. Keep in mind the higher the ISO setting, the more noise the image will contain. Start with an ISO of 800-1500. Increase the ISO until the level of brightness is acceptable. You may need to use an ISO as high as 6400.
Here are common aperture/ISO combinations for a 30 second exposure:
- f/1.4 and ISO400
- f/2.8 and ISO1600
- f/4.0 and ISO3200
- f/5.6 and ISO6400
Focus your lens at infinity. Use the infinity symbol on the lens as a starting point. The perfect infinity point for your lens may be a little to the left or right of the infinity mark, so do some tests in advance.
Don’t worry if your star photos seem lackluster right out of the camera. A photo editing program like new Luminar from Skylum can optimize and enhance the images. There’s no right or wrong way to edit photos, so experiment with a workflow that works for you.
Open your photo in Luminar. It will probably be underexposed. Move the Exposure slider to the right to brighten the image. It should be bright enough to see detail in the shadows but not so bright that it looks like daytime.
Color Temperature and Tint
Once the exposure has been corrected, you may notice an orange cast in part of the sky, which is a result of light pollution. Move the Color Temperature and Tint sliders until it looks more blue and less orange.
The photo may look a little flat at this stage, so you may need to increase the contrast. If the image is too dark or too light after boosting the contrast, go back and readjust the exposure.
Highlight and Shadow Recovery
If parts of buildings or objects in the photo are overexposed use the Highlights and Whites sliders to recover the highlights. If the dark areas are now too dark, move the Shadows and Blacks sliders to lighten the shadows and restore detail.
Saturation and Vibrance
Use the Saturation and Vibrance sliders to enhance the color. Be careful not to go too far with these controls or the result will look unnatural. A good rule of thumb is to keep the levels below +50.
Use the Clarity tool to bring out detail in the Milky Way. As with the Saturation and Vibrance settings, be careful not to go too far with this setting and stay below +50.
Use the structure sliders to increase or decrease the level of detail. You may find that adding detail enhances the photo, or you may want to lower the level to make the sky smoother. Experiment until you find the level that looks best.
When shooting stars at night using high ISOs, even images from the best cameras will contain noise. Use Luminar’s Denoise tool to remove noise from the image. There are eight strength levels to choose from. Since a high level of noise reduction will cause you to lose some detail, use the smallest amount of noise reduction necessary.
We’ve given you all the information to help you get started creating beautiful photos of the night sky, along with a simple workflow in Luminar that even beginners can follow. With a little practice, you can become an expert star photographer.