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How to Photograph Stars: A Practical Guide

Astrophotography can lead to some amazing images. But it is not the easiest photography niche to get into, especially if you want to photograph stars.
There’s a chance you’ll find yourself standing under the stars, trying to remember what to do. That’s where this article comes in.
We’ll go through everything you need to know about photographing stars in this photography tutorial. From types of star photography, gear you might need, setting up your shot and also some useful post-processing tips.

The area around Alnitak, the leftmost stars in Orion's Belt, is home to the famous Flame and Horse Head Nebulae.
The area around Alnitak, the leftmost stars in Orion’s Belt, is home to the famous Flame and Horse Head Nebulae.

What Are the Different Types of Star Photography

One of the aspects that makes astrophotography hard, is that there is no one-size-fits-all kind of procedure. Each kind of astrophotography has its own set of rules, optimal gear and techniques, as well as specific challenges.
Sometimes, you won’t even have a real choice of what to photograph. If the moon’s really bright, you should stick to star trails, starry landscapes, or moon photography. Any deep sky star photography won’t happen.

Impressive star photography over a cliff and pine tree
The lone pine tree on the cliff makes a strong foreground for a classic star trail centred on Polaris. The Moon was shining on the left, lighting the cliff and the foreground.

When it comes to Milky Way photography, make sure your target is visible at that time of year. An app like Stellarium or Sky Guide can help you there.
Apps like PhotoPills  or The Photographer Ephemeris will help you check the Milky Way or the Moon’s position too. Check our full Photographer’s Ephemeris review here!
The Moon next to the Lion on the Butte du Lion (Waterloo, Belgium).
The Moon next to the Lion on the Butte du Lion (Waterloo, Belgium). I waited weeks to have the Moon in the right spot.

The Milky Way rising behind a lone tree - beautiful star photography
The Milky Way rising behind a lone tree.

How to Photograph Different Star Images

Before we delve into the theory, check out our complete astrophotography glossary for the most common terms.
What to Pack When Photographing Stars

1. Star Trails (Difficulty: Easy)

Star trails are the easiest type of starry night photography you can do.

silhouette of the See Through Church lit warmly from behind, beneath a star trail and an orange blue dusk
The “See Through Church” under a star trail.

Specific Gear Suggested

  • USB Dew heater;
  • Light Pollution Reduction (LPR) filters, such as the Hoya Red Intensifier or Nisi Natural Night. These filters help you to fight back the evil orange glow in the sky, typical in light polluted areas.
    Diptych comparing trying to photograph the Andromeda galaxy under a heavily polluted sky with and without an LPR filter.
    Trying to photograph the Andromeda galaxy under a heavily polluted sky with and without an LPR filter.

What to Look For?

Which Camera Settings?

  • Manual mode;
  • Manual focus;
  • Shoot RAWs. If you must use JPG, be sure to have use Sunny White Balance;
  • Internal Stabilisation off: you are on a tripod and you don’t need that;
  • Low ISO (e.g. 400): this will reduce noise and keep a wide dynamic range;
  • Shoot multiple exposures using an intervalometer: e.g. 60 x 60″;
  • Use the shortest interval between shots to avoid gaps in the trail;
  • Use a wide or moderate aperture (e.g. f/2.8-f/5.6).

Starry Landscapes and Milky Way Photographs (Difficulty: Medium)

A man standing on a rock under an impressive star filled sky - star photography
A selfie with the Milky Way.

Starry landscapes and Milky Way shots are a bit more demanding than star trails. You have to freeze the stars’ movement in the sky.
There are many things to consider: composition, light pollution, Milky Way visibility and so on.

Specific Gear Suggested

What to Look for?

  • Interesting foreground: silhouettes, and everything we mentioned for star trails;
    A red van parked right in front the Milky Way in Cap-Blanc-Nez (France), star photography tips.
    A lucky shot thanks to this van parked right in front the Milky Way.
  • If you have an equatorial tracking mount, you have to look for Polaris, aka the North Star, in order to properly set up your gear. A smartphone app like Sky Guide can help here;
  • Balance composition between sky and foreground/landscape with composition rules like the rule of thirds;
  • If you are not after a faint Milky Way, make use of the moon to naturally light the landscape;
  • Look for the Milky Way or well known constellations to capture the viewer’s attention (again, use an app to help you navigate through the stars).
Star photography of the Orion Constellation over this winter landscape.
The well known Orion Constellation is hoovering over this winter landscape.

Which Camera Settings?

  • Manual mode;
  • Manual focus;
  • Shoot RAWs.
  • Internal Stabilisation off: you are on a tripod and you don’t need that;
  • If you track the stars, you can take long exposures in the order of minutes, else you should set the shutter speed according to the 500 rule;
  • Moderate/High ISO (e.g. 1600-3200): this will reduce noise and keep a wide dynamic range. If you track you can lower the ISO below 1600;
  • Shoot multiple exposures using an intervalometer;
  • Take darks (you must take darks in the field) calibration frames. At home you can add bias and flat calibration frames.
  • Use a wide or moderate aperture (e.g. f/2.8-f/5.6);
  • Particularly if you track, take one or more photographs of the foreground, to combine them later with the sky.

Deep Sky Object Photography (Difficulty: Hard)

M42, aka the Great Orion Nebula, perhaps the most spectacular jewel of the winter sky in the Northern Hemisphere.
M42, aka the Great Orion Nebula, perhaps the most spectacular jewel of the winter sky in the Northern Hemisphere.

To keep this article short and to the point, we won’t focus on deep sky photography here. We have an extensive article on how to photography deepsky objects with everyday photography equipment here. And you can also go check out these composition tips for DSO astrophotography if you want to learn more about this.
In simple terms, the easiest deep sky targets are star fields with wide angle or fish-eye lenses.
If you can track the sky, bright star clusters like Pleiades and bright nebulae (The Orion and Cygnus constellation are packed with those) can be easily photographed with medium and long telephoto lenses.
The Cassiopeia star field with the Pacman, Heart and Soul Nebulae and Perseo double cluster and the Veil Nebula (right), the remains of a Supernova explosion. How to photograph stars
The Cassiopeia star field with the Pacman, Heart and Soul Nebulae and Perseo double cluster and the Veil Nebula (right), the remains of a Supernova explosion.

The most difficult subjects are the galaxies, mostly due to their small size and low brightness. A notable exception is the Andromeda Galaxy.
Andromeda, flipped horizontally and vertically. How to photograph stars
The Andromeda Galaxy is one of those bright and large DSOs that can be easily photographed with a standard photographic equipment.

Andromeda is so large and bright that it even shows up in images of star fields taken with wide angle lenses.
An impressive star filled sky, including Andromeda galaxy, star photography
This star field I took with my Sony RX10 at 24mm equivalent, includes the Cassiopeia and Cygnus constellation. Andromeda is readily spotted as a bright yellow-ish clouds.

What to Do in the Field When Photographing Stars

As you have seen, there are quite a lot of things to remember once you are in the field doing night sky photography.

A photographer preparing for star photography
Preparing for some Milky Ways shots.

I found that the best way to approach star photography is with a mental checklist.

  1. Scout the location in relation to the sky;
  2. Set up your gear;
  3. Focus on the star;
  4. Frame your target;
  5. Start shooting.

1. How to Scout the Location for Star Photography

When you get to your shooting spot, have a short walk around.
If you are after starry landscapes and star trails photography, your main task is to look for possible compositions and interesting foreground objects or landscapes.
If nothing looks very interesting, try to photograph yourself in silhouette against the sky. A human figure will give a sense of scale to the image. It will also help the viewer connect with your photo.

A man sitting on a rock under an impressive star filled sky - star photography
Me in silhouette against the Milky Way.

If you are after DSO photography, identify your target and double check that its path across the sky will stay unobstructed. That way you can capture as much as data as you can.
If you are tracking the stars or you want circular star trails, you should have Polaris in clear view.

How to Set Up Your Gear

Whatever you put on your tripod, whether it is a simple ball head or a tracking equatorial mount, your tripod will need to be steady.
You can’t have any movement or vibrations in astrophotography. Your images will be ruined if you do. It will also help if you use a shutter release to avoid camera shake.
Don’t fully extend all the leg sections. Start extending the segment with the largest diameter first. Spread the legs a bit, if possible. This reduces the chacne that you will top it over if you bump it in the dark.
You can further stabilise the tripod by hanging it to your bag (or a weight) with a bungee cord. Make sure that the weight is not free floating mid-air.
For better results it has to touch the ground while tensioning the cord. Check the bucket I used in the image below.

DIY tripod stabilizer for astrophotography
DIY tripod stabilizer for astrophotography

Finally, make sure the tripod is levelled to the ground. This is extremely important if you are using an equatorial mount. Fail to level the tripod and you will not be able to track the sky for long.
Be sure your wedge is on the tripod when you set it up, and it roughly points to the North.
Finally, you can mount your ball head, panoramic head or equatorial head. If you are tracking the sky with an equatorial mount, it is time to align the mount to Polaris.
There are many ways to do that. Use graduated gears, a smartphone app, a specific designed instrument called Polar Master or even a webcam hooked to a computer running Sharp Cap Pro.
Take your time and double check the alignment after you tied up all the screws to lock the mount in position. If the polar alignment is off, your usable exposure time will be much shorter.
Star photography diptych showing poor polar alignment, unstable gear and mount periodic errors
Poor polar alignment, unstable gear and mount periodic errors can ruin your exposures.

If you can, it is better to mount your photographic gear on the equatorial mount before doing the alignment. This way you will avoid to move the tripod thus loosing the polar alignment.

How to Focus on the Stars

Achieving a good focus on stars is a crucial step towards a successful astrophotography image. But it is quite a tricky one. The stars are faint and the infinity mark on many lenses is not indicating the true infinite. As a rule of thumb, it should not be trusted.
To focus on stars make use of your live view and live view magnification. Magnify a bright star and watch carefully for the tell-tale signs of a good focus. The star size shrinks to its minimum, chromatic aberration (purple fringe) is minimised and more faint stars come into view.
To help show more stars on your screen, you can temporarily boost your ISO to 6400 or more. And set the exposure time to bulb.
This is particularly helpful with mirrorless cameras. These are ‘what you see is what you get’ cameras.
A more precise focusing tool is a bahtinov mask. This is a special mask you place in front of your telescope to create diffraction spikes around the brightest stars.
The perfect focus is achieved when all the spikes cross on the bright star you are considering.

A bathinov mask for how to photograph stars
A bathinov mask (Image credit: Wikipedia)

For those of us shooting with photographic lenses, there is a simpler tool we can use to focus: a kitchen sieve.
Pop one in front of your lens and when you see strong, contrasted diffraction spikes, you are good to go.
A DIY Bahtinov Mask made from a kitchen sieve
Focusing with a kitchen sieve.

Once you are happy with your focus, you can tape down the focusing ring with some gaffer tape. This will help you avoid moving it when you mount filters and dew strips.
Star photography shot
Here I didn’t tape the focus ring down and I slightly move it while fitting the dew strip on the lens. It was enough to throw the stars out of focus.

How to Frame Your Target for Star Photos

Once your tripod is set, your mount is aligned to Polaris and your focus is good, it is time to frame your target.
With star trails and starry landscape, framing is like with any classic landscape photography.

Start Shooting

With the required filters and dew heater in place, set the camera settings we suggested for your target and take a final test shot.
Use this image to check that your stars are in focus, sharp and round. Except, of course, if you are shooting star trails. In this case stars should look like short trails. Don’t forget to make sure that no highlights are clipped.
The settings we suggested are a general starting point. If you are not happy with the result, feel free to experiment with different settings.
If you have a zoom lens with no locking mechanism, tape down the zoom ring. The weight of the lens will not slowly change the focal length during the session.
Set the intervalometer to take the desired number of images.

Conclusion

To help beginners work fast in the field, I started an Infograpix Project. It’s astrophotography info about specific topics shown in the form of infographics.

An Infograpix on how to focus on stars.
My Infograpix on how to focus on stars.

The idea is simple: either you save the infograpix on your phone as images or print them. If you fold it, the printed version will have the size of a credit card.
The page for the Infograpix Project, where the cards can be downloaded, is here. I’m still creating more of these astrophotography cards.

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