Clear nights and dark skies can make for some beautiful star photography conditions. In the dark it’s not always easy to get your settings right. If it’s cold you don’t want to be out for to long so use our tips to update your knowledge and produce the best star photography you can!
Always and forever in star photography. Simple as that!
Getting Sharpness in Your Images
Often in star photography you want to really bring out the sharpness of all the stars as well as your other surroundings. This is particularly true if you are shooting the Milky Way at the same time.
The 500 Rule
First things first you should learn this incredible hack!
The 500 Rule calculates the longest exposure time possible for Milky Way and star photography before the movement of stars starts to show. The aim is to get the crisp clear stars in the sky looking like that in you image.
The method is simple. Divide 500 by your chosen focal length on your lens.
500/Xmm = X seconds
If you are shooting your image at 50mm for example then you should have your shutter open for no longer than 10 seconds. 500/50mm = 10 seconds
If you are shooting your image at 20mm for example then you should have your shutter open for no longer than 10 seconds. 500/20mm = 25 seconds
The idea behind this method is to give you some quick exposure values to help you speed up your process. This is obviously not an exact science but it will yield very good results most of the time.
Manual Focus All the Time in Star Photography
You will absolutely need to switch to manual focus when shooting the stars. Your camera and lenses just simply won’t have enough focus points in the dark to do it automatically.
The infinity focus is nearly the widest focus point your camera has. Basically it focuses on everything.
Sometimes your lens will have an infinity focus on its display. You want your focus set to infinity simply because the stars are so far away. You want everything in the frame to be in focus.
If your lens does not have an infinity focus point you need to learn where it is. Photographers have been known to scratch the plastic of their lenses where the infinity focus point is so that they can quickly locate it when they need.
On the other side of the star photography spectrum is motion blur. Images can look brilliant when you see the movement of the stars around the poles.
If you didn’t know the stars will circle around the north and south poles. This can create truly striking images.
The best way to show this movement is in a time lapse photography series of images. If you shoot a series of long exposure continuously over a period of time i.e. 2 to 3 hours you can stitch them together using PhotoShop or an online star stacker tool such as StarStaX to get dramatic star trails.
You should be usually taking 400+ photos for a detailed star trail. This will really show the stars moving around the poles. Set your shutter speed to 15 seconds and the interval timer to 15 seconds so that once one photo is taken another one is taken immediately after. That way there is little to no gaps between the star movements in your shots. It will make for a very smooth and clear trails in your finished frame.
Remember an interesting foreground will also help your star trail stand out. Just make sure the foreground isn’t going anywhere in the next few hours.
A camera timer is invaluable to program the intervals and the number of exposures you want so you can sit back, relax and enjoy the night sky. Also remember to pack plenty of spare batteries and memory cards!
A great technique to apply to the foreground of your image is light painting. if you have a torch or a form of lighting you can start taking your image as you usually would and because the shutter is open for a while you will have a few seconds to add some artificial light to your foreground.
This will enable you to capture the stars aswell as a nicely lit foreground that will tie your frame together nicely.
Camera Settings in Star Photography
Star photography brings about one of the only times you want a wide aperture when shooting a far away subject.
It goes against all your instincts right? But it is important to remember depth of field isn’t important here as the stars are SO far away. The aim of the game is getting enough light into that camera sensor. We know from the exposure triangle that a wide aperture will help with this!
If you’re taking a photo where you have included some interesting foreground, then a wider aperture will also help. It’ll be wide enough to allow plenty of light into the lens while providing enough depth of field to get the foreground in relative focus.
We recommend the widest aperture your lens allows. Usually f/2.8.
The aperture you choose for your star photography needs to be the widest possible. So, the shutter speed should be the longest possible. Always be thinking light. I need to get as much light in as possible.
We gave you a great piece of advice at the start in regards to the 500 rule. This should help you set your desired shutter speed to keep stars sharp.
If you are shooting a star trail you will get away with an even longer shutter speed because the star movement is not an issue.
We recommend applying the 500 rule or starting out your shutter speed at 25 seconds and going from there.
Choosing the right ISO is probably the most important part of star photography. Camera noise becomes so obvious against your dark skies but you obviously need to let enough light in to get your exposure right.
This is where the more expensive cameras and lenses really come into their own. Low light performance is a huge deciding factor in many photographers buying options.
Using a modern full-frame camera, you will quite easily get away with setting your ISO up to 6400. Modern crop sensors will produce fairly clean night sky images at 3200 or lower.
Any higher than that will possibly start to show too much degradation in the image quality. At that point, you’re probably better off shutting to dark and upping the exposure in post-production.
We recommend you use the lowest ISO you possibly can whilst letting enough light in to correctly, or at least nearly correctly, expose your image.
In-Camera Long Exposure Noise Reduction
A useful but time-consuming function of digital cameras is in-camera long exposure noise reduction.
The camera does this by first taking a regular exposure. Once that’s captured, the camera will close the shutter for the same period of time and capture another ‘blank’ exposure.
The camera then compares the to images and attempts to remove as much digital noise as possible. The results vary from camera to camera. Some are brilliant at it and others just simply don’t weigh up.
This process is very time consuming and will drain your battery life, so it’s not perfect. If you are shooting a star trail it won’t work. There will be to much time between each exposure. If you are shooting a simple image then its worth a try.
Mirror Up Feature
It is a good idea to lock the mirror up before the exposure to reduce camera movement and vibration caused by mirror slap. Some cameras access this setting with a control on top of the camera and some through a custom setting in a menu.
Take care to learn exactly how your camera works for this feature, because you could press the shutter thinking you have opened it for a long exposure and go off to do something else, and then come back only to find that all you had done was lock the mirror up and that no exposure had been taken.
Some cameras do not offer a mirror lockup up at all, but they may move the mirror up out of the way as the first thing when using the self timer. Read the camera manual to learn how your particular model works.
Conclusion: Our Go-To Settings
If you only have a few mins to shoot your image here are out go to settings for star photography:
- Focal Length: 20mm
- Aperture: f/2.8
- Shutter Speed: 25 seconds
- ISO: 3200 or lower if possible
- Focus: Manually set to infinity
- In-Camera Long Exposure Noise Reduction: Off
- Shoot RAW!
Why do I need to shoot RAW?