Astrophotography can lead to some amazing images. But photographing stars can be tricky. That’s where this article comes in.
We will cover types of star photography, the gear you might need, setting up your shot and also some useful post-processing tips.
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What to Pack for Star Photography
- Wide-angle lens
- Remote Shutter/Intervalometer
- Fully charged spare battery
- Empty SD card
- LPR filter
- Dew heater (to avoid the formation of dew on the lens)
- Power bank
- Lamp to light the foreground
How Do I Photograph Stars?
One of the aspects that makes night photography hard is that there is no one-size-fits-all procedure. Each kind of star photography 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 is very bright, you should stick to star trails, starry landscapes, or moon photography. Any deep sky star photography won’t happen.
Before we delve into the theory, you can check out our complete astrophotography glossary for the most common terms.
Star Trails (Difficulty Level: Easy)
Star trails are the easiest type of starry night photography you can do.
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.
What to Look For?
- Interesting foreground: a building, a rock formation, mountain peaks, lone trees, light trails;
- Polaris, aka the North Star: stars draw circles around Polaris. A smartphone app like Sky Guide can help you find Polaris in the sky;
- Balance composition between sky and foreground/landscape: use landscape composition rules like the rule of thirds;
- Long trails.
- Manual mode;
- Manual focus;
- Shoot RAWs. If you must use JPG, be sure to have use Sunny White Balance;
- Internal Stabilisation off;
- 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)
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
- An equatorial tracking head to follow the star movements, allowing you to capture long exposure shots of the night sky;
- USB Dew heater;
- Light Pollution Reduction (LPR) filters.
What to Look for?
- Interesting foreground: silhouettes, and everything we mentioned for star trails;
- If you have an equatorial tracking mount, you have to look for Polaris, aka the North Star, 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 light the landscape naturally;
- 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).
- Manual mode;
- Manual focus;
- Shoot RAWs.
- Turn internal Stabilisation off;
- If you track the stars, you can take long exposure shots in the order of minutes, or 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)
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 photograph deep-sky objects with everyday photography equipment here.
You can also go check out these composition tips for DSO astrophotography if you want to learn more about this.
If you can track the sky, bright star clusters like the Pleiades and bright nebulae (The Orion and Cygnus constellation are packed with those) can be easily photographed with medium and long telephoto lenses.
The most difficult subjects are galaxies, mostly due to their small size and low brightness. A notable exception is the Andromeda Galaxy.
Andromeda is so large and bright that it even shows up in images of star fields taken with wide-angle lenses.
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.
I found that the best way to approach star photography is with a mental checklist.
- Scout the location in relation to the sky;
- Set up your gear;
- Focus on the star;
- Frame your target;
- Start shooting.
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.
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 chance 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.
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.
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 specifically 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.
If you can, it is better to mount your photographic gear on the equatorial mount before doing the alignment. This way, you will avoid moving the tripod, thus losing 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.
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.
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.
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 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 camera 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.
Star photography is not the easiest skill to master. But when you do, you will get breathtaking images.
To help beginners work fast in the field, I created an infographic.
The idea is simple: either save the infographic on your phone as an image or print it. If you fold it, the printed version will have the size of a credit card.
If you loved taking star photos and want to learn more, try our Milky Way Mastery course!