If you’re lucky to see stars where you live, or you’re camping outdoors this summer, photographing the night sky can yield spectacular results. With the right settings, a camera can literally mix heaven and earth. The night sky can create some stunning images, but since cameras are at their worst in the dark, photographing the stars is also one of the trickiest types of landscapes to shoot. Autofocus is useless, a tripod is a must, and to top it all off, you’re fumbling with all those camera controls in the dark. But because star photography is so tricky, if you do pull it off, you’ll have a shot that few are able to achieve — you just need the right techniques, the right gear, and the right location to get the shot. Ready to capture the night sky? Here’s how to photograph the stars.
Star photography doesn’t require the $5,000 camera body that NASA uses, but there are a few items that are musts when it comes to the night sky, starting with a tripod. You’ll be shooting long exposures, and without the tripod you end up with nothing but a dark blur.
While you don’t need the most expensive camera around, star photography is better suited for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. There are cameras designed specifically for the night sky, but you don’t need a specially modified camera to get some nice star shots — any camera with manual exposure and manual focus will work. (Smartphone star photography is certainly possible too, however, if you’re up for an even bigger challenge).
Lens choice is purely a creative one. If you’re shooting a celestial event, a telephoto lens will bring that phenomena closer, while super-wide-angle lenses help capture the expanse of it all and keeps the shot grounded with the scenery on the ground.
Since you’re shooting in the dark, grab a flashlight too. It’s also a good idea to make sure your are familiar with the camera controls before you go, and if your camera has backlit controls, to find out where that option is located. (On a Nikon DSLR released within the last few years, for example, a light option is on the on/off switch). A camera remote or a smartphone with an app for Wi-Fi enabled cameras, is also helpful but not necessary.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but don’t do all the planning and traveling only to realize that you can’t actually see any stars because, well, the sky is full of clouds. A less obvious thing to watch out for, however, is the phase of the moon. The light from the full moon can drown out some of the stars. You can still shoot some stars while the moon is lit, but you’ll notice more stars during a new moon.
If you’re imagining a specific landmark with the Milky Way in the background, you’ll also need to plan the shoot around where those stars are at any certain time. This isn’t necessary if you have a location with a good view in every direction (the samples shown here, for example, were all a result of shooting a few test shots, and then finding the largest concentration of stars to find the Milky Way). But, if you’re dreaming up a shot that requires the Milky Way to line up perfectly, an app like the like PhotoPillscan save a lot of hassle.
Photography is generally about capturing light, but when it comes to stars, having too much light is actually a bad thing. City lights will drown out any stars; the light pollution makes it impossible for the camera to capture any stars. The farther you get from city lights, however, the more stars you’ll see in your shots. Ideally, you should be head to places that aren’t heavily populated.
If you have the opportunity to shoot stars and you’re not quite so distant from man-made light, you can still try to shoot some stars if they are visible in the sky — you just won’t capture as many. For example, the two images aboveat a campgroundhad a small town nearby, plenty of campfires, and light pollution you can see around the shoreline, but we decided to try the shot anyways since we were already there and still had a few nice stars in the image.
You can photograph nothing but the night sky, but often, mixing the night sky with the surrounding landscape creates a sense of just how vast and impressive that sky is. Scout out your location for elements to ground the shot. This can be elements in the foreground, such as with trees in front of a starry sky, or in the background, like a starry sky reaching out across a distant mountain.
There are two different ways to incorporate that ground into the shot. You can leave the ground as is and expose for the sky, which turns everything into a silhouette. Or, you can use a flashlight or another continuous light source to paint some light onto those foreground elements so they appear in full color with the sky (set the camera to a slower shutter speed). Again, this is a creative choice, so there’s no right or wrong answer, though light painting might be the more difficult one to master.
Once you’ve found your shot, make sure to set up that tripod.
Night sky photography is long-exposure photography — but only to a point. The stars move across the night sky (or rather, the earth you are standing on spins, but you get the idea) and if you set your exposure too long, your stars will blur. For star photography use either shutter priority mode or manual mode, with a shutter speed less than 30 seconds (ideally, less than 20 seconds). To capture the Milky-Way-level detail, we would overexpose a bit, enough to get the sky lighter than the scenery on the ground. Wide apertures are handy for that low light and the ISO can tie it all together, but the exact settings are going to vary a bit based on your location and any other light in the scene.
A shutter speed of less than 30 seconds will get you pinspots of light, but that’s not the only way to photograph stars. Star trails blur the light as it moves across the sky. For star trails, you’ll need an exposure time of at least 30 minutes. If you really want to show how the stars move across the sky, point the camera towards the north pole (or to the south if you live in the southern hemisphere) and leave the camera shooting on bulb mode for a few hours. Another option is to blend multiple shots under 30 seconds to create star trails or stitch those same images together into a time-lapse star video.
Autofocus needs light to work, which means manual focus is a must for photographing the stars. Thankfully, the stars are all pretty far away, which makes it a bit easier to get a sharp focus manually. Start by turning the focus dial all the to infinity, then fine-tune from there. Focus peaking can be helpful, so if your camera model offers that feature, turn it on and experiment. Another trick for checking the focus is to switch to the live view mode and hit the magnifying glass to check the shot.
Touching the camera during any long-exposure can sometimes add camera shake, even with a tripod. With the composition, exposure, and focus set, you’re ready to shoot, but shoot hands-free for the best results. If you have a remote or a Wi-Fi enabled camera with a smartphone app, use that, but if you don’t have a remote available, turning on the self-timer to delay the shot long enough to take your hands off the camera gets the same results.
After waiting for that long-exposure to finish, check the shot on the LCD before moving on to the next one. Make sure that focus is tack-sharp by zooming in on those stars. If both the landscape and the sky is about the same color, increase your exposure. While you can adjust exposure in post to some extent, drastic changes in exposure is going to bring out the noise in the image, so get it as close as possible in camera. Check the composition for any potential improvements — sometimes, spotting the view with the most stars is easier to do after you’ve taken a few shots. Once you’ve pinpointed any potential issues, make corrections and reshoot before trying a different composition.
Once you’ve finished shooting the stars (and maybe caught up on your sleep) a bit of fine-tuning often gives the shots the extra push. Start by fine-tuning the exposure to make the most stars pop, but don’t get too extreme or you’ll notice a lot more noise. White balance can come in handy when editing star shots as well — in some of these shots, for example, we like to make the sky closer to a dark blue or even purple more than a black or gray and we do that all through white balance.
Contrast can also help those stars pop a bit more, but avoid using the contrast slider or at least use that option last — start by bringing up the highlights and whites and bringing down the shadows and blacks. In shots of the Milky Way, using clarity and vibrance can help bring out the gas and dust in that band of stars.
Learning how to photograph stars isn’t just about great images — it’s getting away from the city lights, staying outside when most retreat to their beds, and standing under a view that’s stunning from nearly anywhere in the world. The limited light may make photographing the stars tricky, but both the experience and the final images make it a challenge worth mastering.