How to Take Photos of Stars
Star photography is incredibly captivating and addictive. Staring up at a vast blanket of stars above, often in the cold late at night, is something that will give you an incredible sense of place in the universe. That first long exposure image of the night sky is unforgettable – the sky truly comes alive. However, it is a difficult area of photography and learning how to photograph stars correctly is paramount to creating good photos.
In this article, I’ll share with you everything that you need to know about how to take photos of stars.
1. Shoot long exposures
To achieve those dreamy star photos, you’ll need to be shooting a long exposure. This describes an extended period of time that you camera is recording light on the sensor – often around 8-10 seconds – that allows very faint and distant stars to show up. You’ll see thousands and thousands of points of light, many of which are not visible to the naked eye. This is the key reason as to why many star photos look so much more dramatic than the skies we are familiar with day to day.
Therefore, a camera that can shoot long exposures is essential. Have a read of our essential kit for star photography article to get to grips with what you need.
2. Stay away from artificial light sources
One of the biggest problems for star photography is artificial light. Lights from urban areas, even at far distances from you, can be problematic. If you’re in a city then the chances of getting anything relatively dramatic are slim. Long exposures will bring horrible orange hues from street lights that will flood the sky and obscure the majority of stars from your image.
So, the best advice is to head out of the city into the countryside. Look up at the sky and if you can see many stars, and it is a clear night, then you are onto a winner. Think about where you are pointing the camera, too (and no, I don’t mean upwards). Take a look at your location on a map – are there any towns or cities in the direction you are pointing the camera? If so, you may see the orange glow on the horizon again.
Ultimately, you need to face a direction with no immediate or near-distant artificial light sources. Shooting at the coast, for example, is a great way to have a truly clear sky.
3. Ensure your stars are sharp by using manual focus
When learning how to photograph stars, one of the most difficult things is to get properly sharp stars. Poorly focused images will show stars as soft blobs in the sky, and it can be difficult to determine this in the field on your camera’s LCD – usually the disappoint comes when reviewing the images on a computer.
Autofocus is a big no-no for star photography. You’ll need to set your lens to manual focus mode and do things the old-fashioned way. Switch your camera into LiveView mode, and zoom in on the brightest star you can find. Slowly focus your camera by moving the focus ring on your lens until it is looking sharp. Then, don’t touch the focus!
We have an extensive article on how to achieve sharp star images that you can read for more information.
4. The moon is not your friend
It’s easy to think that a bright moon and no clouds make the perfect conditions for an astro shot. We’ve written extensively about photographing moonscapes, but the moon rarely works in a star photo when it is shining brightly.
With the moon being relatively close to the Earth, and consequently brighter than the stars, the light floods the sky and makes the majority of stars invisible.
So, for the best star photos, you’ll need to shoot when the moon is not out. This could mean late nights to coincide with its position, but it’ll be worth it!
5. Use augmented reality apps
A fantastic tool to use when taking photos of stars is an augmented reality application on your smartphone. This allows you to view the landscape in front of you through your phone’s camera, whilst simultaneously projecting the night sky onto the scene. You can then jump forwards in time, allowing the position of the moon and Milky Way to shift in front of you.
This means that you are able to properly plan a shot and know exactly what time of night the conditions are perfect for you desired image. No more guessing!
I recommend downloading PhotoPills – it has a number of tools for star photos other than just the AR feature.
6. Watch the weather
Use a variety of weather apps to make sure you are fully prepared for the next clear night. You want to ensure there are absolutely no clouds in the sky for the best images – unless of course you’re going to incorporate stars into your shot.
An app I’ve recently acquired is Clear Outside – it shows you the predicted cloud cover of low, medium, and high cloud. Clear hours are highlighted in green, allowing you to quickly see your next best opportunity for star photos.
7. Avoid star trails
I’ve recommended using long exposures, and it can be easy to assume the longer the better. That means more light, and more stars… right? Yes, but it comes at a price. As the Earth rotates, stars appear to drag across the sky and the movement shows up as a trail in the image.
Star trails (or star streaks) are a popular type of astrophotography, but for a “normal” star photo you want to ensure that you do not have trailing stars. One of the features of the previously mentioned PhotoPills application is that you can calculate the exact point that stars will start to noticeably trail in your shot.
For example, at a focal length of around 27mm I will have an exposure at 8-10 seconds to ensure stars do not trail. If I was shooting at 200mm, however, this exposure time would have to be faster as the effect of the Earth’s rotation is more apparent.
8. Read all of our star photo tutorials
These are some of the basics of star photography, but as you can imagine it is a hugely in-depth field. If you’re serious about learning how to take photos of stars, ensure that you join our free newsletter and read through our extensive collection of star photography tutorials.