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Tips & Tricks

How We Shot It: 15 Minute Self-Portrait Under The Stars!

By Matthew Saville on January 7th 2013

Hey guys, Matthew Saville here with another video version of our “How I Shot It” series! Have you ever wondered how people take pictures of the stars, when there is almost no light at all?  Your light meter can’t be trusted, and autofocus is downright useless.  Well, recently in my travels to Joshua Tree and Death Valley, I created a self-portrait during an extended exposure.

Basically after picking my camera settings what I did was I opened up the shutter in “bulb” mode using a cable release, climbed up onto the arch, set a timer on my phone, and sat there.  It was freezing cold and windy, so I definitely wanted to get this shot as soon as possible and get back into my sleeping bag!  :-)

In this video, I’ll cover the two reliable tricks that I always use for getting shots like this as quickly as possible.  Enjoy!


The “guess” – the shot-in-the-dark test exposure:


The “keeper” – un-edited RAW original:


The final image, edited using the SLR Lounge Preset System:

Nikon D700, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8,
Oben Tripod, Aputure shutter release / remote control

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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Basit Zargar

    Nicely defined

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  2. Waggener Mutti

    That’s an awesome photo, Matt!  Thanks for sharing with all of us.  I’m a Kindergarten-First Grade teacher and love your analogies and walking us through the progressive process.

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  3. Hjd

    I’ve done something similar, but when setting to infinity for stars, my foreground (your rock) would be out if focus. How is your foreground AND stars both in focus?

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    • Matthew Saville

      Good question, Hjd! To be honest-  it is always a bit of a compromise.  Especially if this were a 24mm f/1.4 instead of a f/2.8, I would have noticeable DOF issues.  However this particular lens, the Nikon 24-70, seems to be able to pull infinity and the ~30-40 ft area into nearly the same focus.  (The perspective of the arch is kinda hard to determine, but yeah I’m probably 30-40 feet from the camera, so it’s actually not too much of a stretch for the DOF to make it, at least not dead center.  That’s another tip- on these newer high-tech lenses, DOF is often much deeper in the center than the edges.  Or, it’s just field curvature but either way play around and see what you get.
      Here’s a small trick-  stars actually appear slightly brighter when you put them just slightly out of focus, because they take up say for exmaple a ~5 pixel circle instead of a ~2 pixel circle.  You have to be very precise, but I recommend playing around with exact star focusing, and also focusing just a hair in front of the stars. Also, of course, the wider lens you have, and the smaller the aperture you have, the better your DOF will get.  24mm f/2.8 is actually not too bad, and a lot of star time lapse shooters use 14mm f/2.8 lenses which have absolutely incredibly deep DOF for stuff like this.

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  4. Jay Abramson

    Don’t sit on treasured arches idiot!

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  5. Adrian C

    Thank you very much for the explanation on this kind of shots! I have a question though: what are those two silhouettes that appear under the stone arch?

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    • Matthew Saville

      Adrian, that is actually myself climbing up and down the rock arch.  I move quickly enough that, in a 17 minute exposure, being there for only a fraction of a second barely registers in the image.

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  6. Maik Thomas

    he could shoot a timelapse and stack them together and make a seperate photo of himself and than paint / compose him in. he made it really difficult to hisself.

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