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Star Trails

star strails over the skyline

Introduction to Shooting Stars - Beginners' Guide Part I

By: Robert Schall

September 08, 2016

Each and every one of us has, at some point in our life, spent time staring up at the star-filled sky in awe and wonder.  There is something mesmerizing and inspiring about the stars.  For some of us, that bewilderment has not dissipated.  We still find ourselves gazing up at the stars whenever we can, and are drawn to any photographs of star-filled night skies and the Milky Way.

If you are into photography, you have the chance to create some of these images yourself.  While it may seem a daunting task, fear not, for this is in fact easier than you may think.  Please allow me to provide you with some starting tips on how to shoot the stars yourself.

In this first part of my “Introduction to Shooting Stars,” I will cover things you need to think of and be aware of leading up to the moment that you shoot the stars.

Night Sky

Equipment You May Need:

• Tripod You really need a tripod for this type of photography.  You will be taking some long exposures of around 10 to 30 seconds.  Without a strong, solid tripod, there is no chance for you to be able to capture pin needle sharp stars.  At these exposure lengths, the sturdier a tripod you can get your hands on the better, since you will be exposed to the elements and you do not want a strong wind to ruin your shot.

• Camera and Lens You need a camera that will allow you to shoot in manual mode. It is also helpful to shoot in RAW image format instead of JPEG.  DSLR and certain point and shoot cameras will give you this capability.  In order to provide yourself ultimate control over exposure time, aperture, ISO, and white balance, this type of camera is the way to go.  

Next, you will ideally want a wide-angle lens with a fast aperture.  This kind of lens will allow your camera’s sensor to pick up as much light as possible in the shortest amount of time. For full frame cameras, wide-angle lenses between 14mm and 24mm are recommended. For crop sensor cameras, wide-angle lenses between 10mm and 17mm are recommended.  Apertures of f/2.8 – f/4 are ideal.

• Remote Trigger / Intervalometer For the type of night sky images I am covering, your camera’s built-in minimum shutter speed of 30 seconds should suffice.  However, I still suggest a remote trigger in order to minimize the camera shake caused by hitting the shutter button.  If you do not have a remote trigger, use your camera’s self-timer.  This way it gives the camera time to settle after you hit the shutter button.

If, at some point, you want to explore star trails, then you will need an intervalometer.  This will allow you to shoot longer exposures than 30 seconds and also program the camera to shoot multiple exposures one after the other.

Night Sky

Location requirements:

• Dark Night The ideal time to shoot is during the week leading up to and after New Moon.  So it is important to check the moon’s phases.  There are plenty of apps and websites that you can find to help you determine when your optimal shooting time frame will be.

The moon is a lot closer than any of the stars and will therefore add a huge amount of light pollution to your images and subsequently mute out many of the fainter stars you are trying to capture.

• Dark Location This might seem elementary, but when trying to capture the night sky, whether just the stars or the Milky Way, you are best served by finding the darkest sky possible.

As with the moon, nearby cities and other well-lit areas create light pollution, which in turn affects the number of stars you will be able to capture and the clarity of your night sky images.

There are also plenty of apps and websites that can help you find locations with the least amount of light pollution.

Please Note: If your eyes cannot see the Milky Way, your camera will not be able to either.

• Clear Sky I do not want to state the obvious, but nonetheless, we should talk about this: the fewer clouds the better for capturing any night sky.  You should aim for 0 to less than 35% cloud coverage for the best results.

At the same time, do not be afraid of a few clouds. They can add great texture and drama to your images.  But be mindful of your exposure times and the speed and direction these clouds are moving; the less movement the better.

Camera Settings You Should Be Aware Of:

• Camera Mode As you can see in the paragraphs leading up to this, we are pretty much dialing in all the settings on the camera ourselves.  In order to do this, your camera needs to be capable of and set to MANUAL (M).

• Image Format In order to give you the greatest latitude of control when processing your images later, it is best to shoot in RAW format.

• White Balance Now, we did say that shooting RAW is best practice here, so you could just leave the camera in Auto White Balance (AWB) and adjust it later when you process the images.  Just as a guideline, for nice and natural looking night sky color usually a range between 3000 to 4000K (Kelvin) will give you the best results.

Night Sky

• Focal Length Usually, the wider focal length the better so anywhere from 14 to 24mm would be your best choice (or 10 to 17mm for cropped sensor cameras).  You can try longer focal lengths, but remember that the longer your focal length the shorter your exposure times will become.

• Aperture The goal here is to allow the maximum amount of light to hit your sensor in the shortest amount of time.  So smaller aperture, somewhere in the range of f/2.8 to f/4 works best for star photography.

Please Note: shooting at apertures smaller than f/2.8 can prove very hard to achieve focus.  Not impossible, just harder, hence the recommendation to stay at or above f/2.8.

• Exposure Time We will cover this in the second part of the “Introduction to Star Photography” where I will introduce you to what is referred to as the “500 or 600 Rule."  This rule will aid you in determining the best exposure.

• ISO Here is where you will need to experiment a little in order to find the best setting.  Typically, most star photos are shot using ISO values between 1250 and 6400.  Some of this depends on how much foreground you have in your composition, light pollution there might be or whether you are shooting the Milky Way or not.  If you are shooting in ideal conditions, so in a dark location with a dark and clear night, start at 1250 and work your up to the ISO range until you get your best exposure result.  In less ideal conditions with more light pollution you might have to go lower than 1250 with your ISO.

Please Note: only compensate with ISO after your exposure is at the 500 Rule’s maximum.

In the second part of this “Introduction to Shooting Stars” we will cover what to do when you are on location and ready to shoot; how to achieve correct focus and exposure.

Night Sky