Look up at the sky on a clear night with minimal light pollution and you’ll see a blanket of stars. It’s magical and mind-blowing to think just how far away those stars really are. But get out your camera and take a long exposure, and you’ll see that what you saw with your eye was only part of the real picture. The night sky lights up with billions of stars everywhere, creating some sort of scene you’d expect to see from a spaceship.
If you’re new to photographing stars, there are a few things you should know. Here are six tips to get you started.
1. Use Infinity to Focus
The most important part about successfully photographing the stars is to get your focus correct. There are so many star photos being shared online where they’re just not in focus. If your lens has a manual focus ring and indicator, ensure that you turn this to exactly infinity ∞. This will bring the stars into pin-sharp focus.
If your lens doesn’t have this ring, or you find that the infinity symbol doesn’t actually focus precisely on stars (this can be the case with some lenses), then you’ll need to do this manually. You can do this in the daylight, focusing manually on the horizon, or very distant hills or similar. Use the Live View function and zoom in on the LCD to check the precise focus point. Once you’ve obtained focus, mark the lens where you need to focus to.
Or go one step further. If you have a lens dedicated to astrophotography, such as the Samyang 14mm f/2.8, then find this point and tape the focus ring down with heavy duty tape. This will stop it from ever moving again, meaning you can take your lens out the bag and start shooting straight away without having to first fumble around in the dark obtaining focus. Just be sure to double-check that focus is still on stars if you find yourself shooting in extreme cold or heat, though.
2. Beware of Star Trails
There comes a point when a long exposure starts to record the rotation of the Earth, blurring your stars and making them become trails. This varies depending on your focal length and the angle of the stars to the celestial equator. The latter is less important, but if you want to be really precise, then you can calculate this as well.
As a general rule, you might get good results by shooting at no longer than 20-30 seconds when using an ultra-wide lens like a 14mm, or at 4-8 seconds when using a medium lens like a 50mm.
3. Pay Attention to Light Pollution
If you’re taking photos with a town or city in the distance, chances are you’ll get an orange glow in your photos. The longer you record an exposure for, the stronger this glow will be. It is particularly accentuated by clouds. Sometimes it can work well, but a lot of the time, you’ll hate it.
In this photo, I’m in a remote part of the countryside; the nearest city is probably 10 miles away, but I’m the sky is still lit up orange. You can play with your white balance to reduce this a little, but be careful not to make the rest of the scene look unnatural. I quite like the effect it had here, making it look ‘spacey’.
4. Keep Lights Low
It goes without saying that you should keep your torch and phone turned off whilst taking an exposure. If there are other photographers around, then be courteous and don’t shine bright lights. Instead, buy yourself a red light so that disturbance is minimal, but you can still use it to operate your equipment.
Any bright lights that even accidentally light a scene for a split second will be recorded in an exposure and can ruin a photo. This is especially frustrating to someone taking a time-lapse, possibly rendering the whole sequence useless.
If you’re out making star time-lapses with friends, check to see if your camera or your cable release has any small blinking lights, and consider covering them with a bit of black tape.
5. Think About the Foreground
The focus of your photo is on the stars; sure, that’s the impressive bit. But pay attention to your foreground, too. It adds context and scale, and also reminds the viewer that they are looking at the scene from Earth. If you just photograph the sky and nothing else, then you’re going to have a pretty boring picture that could have been taken anywhere.
6. Try Taking a Panoramic Photo
Try using the technique of stitching multiple images together to convey a wider scene. The sky is a huge expanse of space, and recording it all in one photo can be hard. By creating a panorama, you’re giving the viewer a chance to see a much wider perspective than normal.
The photo is a panorama of about six photos, all taken from a vertical perspective. This allowed me to capture a much wider expanse of the sky than a horizontal panorama. A tripod head that can tilt vertically is essential for this. Notice the bright beam of light, too – this is from a spotlight in the castle.
7. Get the Gear
I’ve already mentioned that having a dedicated lens for astrophotography is a great idea; the Samyang 14mm f/2.8 is superbly sharp and will only set you back about $300. Other things to look for are a tripod head with the ability to tilt vertically for panoramic photos, such as this Manfrotto ball head.
Suggesting that you should bring warm clothing may make me sound like a grandmother, but it’s true – nights can be very long and cold especially if it’s windy. Being cold is one thing that can make the experience miserable and force you to give up early. Pack some gloves, a scarf and some extra layers so you can battle through the elements.
Photographing the stars is such a popular thing nowadays that if you want your photos to stand out, you need to think outside the box. Developing the foreground of your photo is one way to do this, but you can also experiment by light-painting objects in the composition. This is where you light it up with a torch during a long exposure and ‘paint’ it with light.
My final thought is to be careful when processing star photos. There are so many overcooked shots, with heavy processing and saturation adjustments. They just look fake – if the sky is suddenly bright blue, then you’ve probably pushed the saturation far too high. This is common with images of the Aurora Borealis. Keep the scene natural and happy shooting!