Photographing the stars is one of the coolest photography genres out there. Capturing the Milky Way in all its glory or the various phases of the moon results in spectacular images. But, as you can imagine, it comes with numerous challenges.
Because of the light conditions, you’ve got to understand the equipment you should use, how to adjust your camera settings for the best shots, and how to improve your images in post-production. Additionally, it helps to know a few things about the best locations and how to properly prepare for the shoot. But let’s start with camera settings.
Camera Settings for Star Photography
To help you understand how to photograph the stars, we’ve put together a list of 13 settings to master in order to capture, dare I say it–stellar images!
While technically not settings, the equipment you choose is vitally important for being able to achieve the kind of settings you’ll need to photograph the stars. At a minimum, you’ll need the following equipment:
- Camera with Manual Settings — you simply can’t leave your camera in automatic mode. You’ll be breaking a few rules that the automatic mode won’t be able to do. For that reason, the automatic settings just won’t cut it, so you need to be able to make the adjustments yourself.
- Tripod — you’re going to be taking long exposure images, and no matter how steady your hand is, it won’t be steady enough to prevent camera shake for these long exposure shots.
- Shutter Release Cable — because of the long exposure times, you want to avoid any kind of camera shake. Even just touching the camera with your hand to take the photo can cause some camera shake, and the slightest movement will show up in your images. So, it’s best to have a shutter release cable, but if you don’t have one, you can set your camera’s timer to take the photo automatically. You’ll usually want to set it to 2 seconds rather than the normal default of 10 seconds. The 10 second setting allows you enough time to get in the photo, but for this purpose, 10 seconds will seem like forever.
- Wide Aperture Lens — you’ll need to open up your aperture. That means you’ll want a lower f stop number–f/2.8 works well.
- Flashlight — you’ll need a flashlight for two reasons: First, you want to get out of town to get away from light pollution. You’ll likely need to drive at least an hour outside of town, and so, when you get to that great location, you’ll want a flashlight to get yourself situated. The second reason you’ll want a flashlight is for painting the foreground with light. We’ll discuss that shortly.
2. Manual Focus
As already mentioned, autofocus won’t be able to achieve the kind of settings you’re going to need in order to take photographs of the stars. If you leave your camera on autofocus, it is guaranteed the stars will be blurry. The settings you need to capture the stars kind of break the normal rules, and autofocus isn’t capable of doing that. So, you’ll need the manual mode.
You’ll want to set your manual focus to infinity. Most lenses have a mark that tells your where the infinity setting is–it’s marked by an “L” or an “I”. Once set, you can take a shot to see what you get, but often you’ll want to back it off infinity just a little.
You can continue to do that until you get clear images with the stars in focus. If you’ve got something in the foreground, you can paint that with light and focus on that. Once focused on your foreground, you can lock the focus, re-position the angle of the camera, and take the shot.
ISO is your camera’s sensitivity to light. You’ll need it to be set somewhere between 800 – 2000. The problem with a high ISO is that it causes more ‘noise’ in the image. This results in a grainy appearance in your photographs. So, you will want to experiment in finding the sweet spot where you can keep the ISO at the lower end of that range and a longer shutter speed to get a clear image.
4. Noise Reduction Settings
Many cameras allow you to turn on noise reduction settings. There are two: 1) the long exposure noise reduction setting, and 2) the high ISO noise reduction setting. These can help if for some reason, you’re shooting jpeg formats, but as we’ll discuss below, for this type of photography, you’ll want to shoot in RAW. These settings will have to be turned off. Therefore, you can’t rely on these settings to help you get better images. You’ll have to play around with the ISO and shutter speed to reduce noise.
You’re going to need a wide-open aperture to allow in the most light possible. It’s best to shoot at as wide a setting as your lens allows, and thus, a wide aperture lens will be better for this kind of photography. For aperture settings, the lower the f stop number, the more open the aperture. A good setting for most star photography is f/2.8.
6. Shutter Speed
Your shutter speed is going to be very slow, usually between 20 and 30 seconds. The rule for calculating your shutter speed is called the 500 rule. You divide 500 by the focal length of your camera. For example, if your focal length is 16mm, then you divide 500 by 16, which equals 31.25, so your shutter speed would need to be set to 31 or 32 seconds to get a focused image.
If you set your shutter speed for longer than that, you will get star trails. That may be something you want to do too. It produces those images that create light trails as the stars move across the sky.
7. Focal Length
You’re going to want the widest focal length you can get. For full-frame cameras, wide-angle lenses between 14mm and 20mm are recommended to give you the widest focal length… For crop sensor cameras, you’ll want wide-angle lenses between 10mm and 17mm for the widest focal length. These settings allow your camera to pick up more light with a wide-open aperture, and they also allow you to get more of the night sky in the image.
HDR stands for high dynamic range. It’s a setting that tells the camera to take multiple shots at slightly different exposures, and then you can merge those together to produce an image with the best exposure.
9. Painting with Light
If you’ve got something in the foreground that you want in the picture, you can paint it with light. That helps your camera to focus and can create dramatic images. You can do this by using your handy flashlight we discussed earlier, or you can use speedlights. For speedlights, you press the camera’s speedlight flash button when the shutter is open. You then move the speedlight across the foreground scene to light it up with the flash.
The benefits of shooting in RAW really come with post-production techniques. You can think of RAW images like negatives. They give you more flexibility in adjusting the image quality during post-processing. That will be important for your star photographs since post-production processing will be a must.
11. White/Color Balance
The white balance takes into account the color temperature of a light source. It’s measured in Kelvin values, which are designated by a K. If it’s not set correctly, you’ll see unrealistic color casts in your images. For star photography, it’s usually best to set the white/color balance to somewhere between 4000K and 5500K. This works best for very dark skies with little light pollution.
12. Lens Stabilization
Some lenses have lens stabilization settings, and some don’t, but if yours does, you’ll want to turn it off. If you don’t, the camera will continuously be trying to auto-stabilize any shake, and if it’s doing that over the course of long exposure, it will actually cause images that are less clear. You should already be stabilizing the camera with a tripod, and hopefully, a shutter release cable, so there is no need for this function, and because of the long exposure, it will cause more problems than it will solve.
13. Post Production
When it comes to photographing the stars, a lot of the magic actually happens in post production processing. Don’t be surprised when your images don’t look exactly like what you saw when you took a photograph.
Post production is where you can adjust the highlights, the shadows, the exposure, and even some of the clarity. If you’ve got something in the foreground, you might want to divide the photograph and adjust the settings separately for each zone. That way, you can bring out the features of the foreground scenery while, at the same time, adjusting the highlights and contrast of the star-filled sky.
One post production tip for making star trail images is to import all of your photos in the series into Lightroom (or a similar photo editing program) and apply your desired adjustments to one of those images. Then you can sync those adjustments to apply them to the other images. Then, you’re ready to import all of the images into Adobe Lightroom (or a similar program) as layers. Once imported, you highlight all the images and adjust the layer’s tab setting from normal to lighten. And, now you have star trails! Read our detailed article on How to Edit Photos in Lightroom.
Star Photography Tips
When you’re learning how to photograph the stars, there are a couple of tricks that can help improve your experience and maybe your images too.
As mentioned before, light pollution is a serious impediment to getting great images of the stars. Even small towns can produce significant light pollution. You want to get as far away from these light sources as you can, and you can use the internet to help you find locations near you. Search for international dark sky reserves, and you’ll find locations where the sky is darkest.
But, you can also help yourself by using a little planning. For example, unless your objective is to photograph the moon, you might check for when there will be a moonless night. It also helps if you can go up in altitude. That leaves the light sources below you, and you can then point your camera away from them.
Visit Your location in the Day
It also helps to visit the location during the day. You can see what the landscape is like, plan your specific location, and you can see if there are interesting features you might like to include in the foreground.
You’re photographing at night, so come prepared with comfortable, warm clothing. You’ll also need full, freshly-charged batteries, and it helps to bring extra batteries and memory cards. Don’t forget that flashlight, and you might want to bring extra batteries for that too. Also, don’t forget something to drink and a few snacks–you’ll be a while.
Photographing the stars is a challenging genre. You won’t get it right at the start, but keep practicing and be patient. Even if your images don’t turn out well, you’ll still be rewarded with some spectacular starlit skies, and with a little practice, your images will improve.
By practicing the camera setting tips in this post and preparing for your shoot by finding areas with the darkest skies, waiting until a moonless night, getting away from sources of light pollution, and learning the art of patience, you’ll soon find you’re taking star pictures like the pros.
More Tips and Frequently Asked Questions
How to photograph star trails?
I could do a whole other post on that subject, but suffice it to say it involves longer exposures to capture the movement of the stars and multiple images that you can then merge into one.
Are camera settings different for a DSLR camera?
Most are the same, but there may be a few extra functions that you might have to consider. For example, you want to set the exposure compensation to zero since you’re using manual mode, and you don’t want to lock the mirror up for long exposures. If your camera has different resolution settings, you want to use Native Optical Resolution, which outputs the same number of pixels that the image is taken with. You also want to turn any sharpening function off since it’s better to do that in post production processing. And, don’t forget to turn off the built-in flash.
What are the best lenses for night sky photography?
As mentioned, an ultra-wide aperture, wide-angle lens is best for capturing the most light and the most sky. More specifically, here are three of the highest-rated lenses for astrophotography:
Which cameras are the best for photographing stars?
Not surprisingly, Nikon and Canon lead the way. Here are two of the top-rated cameras for astrophotography: