Every photographer dreams of that perfect image of starry skies curving around the horizon and dark silhouettes of the landscape unfolding beneath it. Though Star photography essentially comes downto adjusting a few elements compared to all-round photography, it can offer quite a challenge when you don’t exactly know where to begin. It is rather different from other night-photography styles such as normal street and night-life photography. We have struggled with the same problem and learned the skill step-by-step. We’ll give you some insight in what we do in order to make the best star- and milky way photos. Feel free to skip ahead to any parts you want to know more about regarding star-photography.
It’s essential to have the right equipment for star photography. Not only is it difficult to capture stars with a dark sky and no other sources of light, it’s also required to take completely still images. We would argue these are the most essential things for everyone who wants to take star- and milky way photos. We often practiced star photography when we just started getting into photography. At that point we didn’t have very advanced equipment to capture stars and dark skies in high detail. However, this was not needed to take good pictures. It is more important to have good equipment which helps you focus on still images. We often used tripods and remotes for this. A tripod is definitely one of the most essential ones of these tools. When the image gets shifted during the exposure time, it will cause all the light in the image to shift, thus causing the stars to become unclear or even white stripes across the image. We will cover the exposure time later, but it is important to know that during this -longer than average- exposure time, the camera should remain stable and unmoved. Therefore,a tripod is key to good star photography.
A remote also helps with keeping the camera still. When triggering the shutter button, a little tremble to the camera can occur, even when it’s positioned on a solid tripod. Though not large and sometimes even unnoticeable, it's always be a real shame when that perfect shot failed because the camera moved an inch. Especially using more advanced equipment, this movement becomes clearer across the image. Hooking up a remote to your camera prevents it from trembling when you press the shutter trigger and allows you to take the best shots. It additionally often gives you more options and control over shutter time and other settings from a small distance. We’ll talk more about better stability in a little bit.
Depending on what you aim to capture, the lenses and vocal distance are detrimental to capture exactly what you imagine. When you aim to capture an almost panoramic view of the sky with some foreground in the image, a wide-angle lens is your go-to lens. We prefer to use all-roundlenses in combination with wide angle lenses to capture good shots. When aspecific photo comes to mind, we occasionally use zoom lenses, yet these take away most of the imposing effects of large skies with countless stars.
We often use our all-round lens, the Canon24-70mm F2.8, since the range allows a little more focus on certain details in the landscape and offers more opportunities to frame the image to your likings. We use this lens on a Full-Frame 5D MIII, which basically extends the range to a wider image (equal to approximately 12mm for a DSLR/APS-C, non-full-frame camera). This lens is also known for it’s unequalled sharpness, giving just that little extra edge to the starry skies. It furthermore helps significantly with its low aperture, which allows for a quicker exposure time and thus smaller chances of stars moving across the image.
In addition to our all-round lens, we prefer to use our ultra-wide angle lens, the Sigma 12-24mm F4.0, to capture imposing photos with numerous stars ranging across the horizon. There really is no comparison to an ultra-wide image of the starry skies. These lenses give an imposing view of the endless starry skies and really lift your photos to the next level.
In contrast, zoom lenses can offer a creative way to frame parts of the same image and focus solely on a particular detail of the sky, be it the moon,mountain ranges, or forests which you want to capture. Though limited in range, zoom lenses can still offer stunning photos if used the right way.
Before diving into the details, it is important to prepare well for star photography. In the end, the location and the landscape will make your photo unique. We always headed out for locations which we knew had great potential and an awesome surrounding with lots of hight differences, such as mountains, or reflections, like lakes or sea sides. It is,nevertheless, key to find a location which has little to no light pollution. Besides other factors, like clear skies, light pollution is a very important factor to keep into account. We always search the internet for websites whichwill indicate light pollution levels in your local area. Areas which are rich in light pollution give you less chance to see plentiful stars. Moreover, it could be the sole reason why you might not see the milky way in your area.
It is important to know the sensor of the camera will take in more light than we observe, due to the longer exposure time. Searching for a place with low light pollution is therefore very important and prevents your image from colouring yellow all over the skies with only few stars. Low light pollution areas will offer you a rich sky filled with stars and if you’re lucky, the milky way at close sight. When the skies are clear and unpolluted, star photographers are able to shine, and even you can make stunning shots. Plan the right day to go out for star photography, check your weather app if there are no clouds expected and search for a nice environment with low light pollution. We prefer to go to national parks or large areas far away from populated cities.
When the location is selected, the night is clear and you brought the right equipment, it’s time for the most important part of star photography; taking the perfect shot. It is important to find a stable position for you tripod and camera mounted on it with a clear view of the skies. Ideally, we prefer to have part of the foreground filled with coils of the landscape or with a lake to reflect the starry skies. Depending on the lighting and your exposure time, this foreground will slightly show in the photo. It is thus important to also make this element of the photo appealing.It is even possible to have an object in this part of your image, like the silhouette of a tree or a mountain.
Once the right position is found, we focus on the camera. Quite literally we will determine the perfect focus of the lens we use. The procedure is rather similar regardless of which lens you use. The dark skies make autofocus practically useless, so it is common to use manual focus for star photography. This can be quite difficult, especially if you normally only take photos wiht autofocus, but we will walk you throught the process.
It is important to know that every star has optimal sharpness in the image and should look like an edged dot of light rather than a blur. It’s tricky to get to the exact focus point which has the best sharpness, as setting the focus to infinite distance is often not the optimal way to go about this. When you zoom the image digitally on your camera (using the zoom button on the camera, while looking at one star or a group of stars), you will see the stars still look a bit blurry. We recommend keeping this zoomed-in focus and adjusting the focusband from that point downwards until the stars get optimal edges and sharpness. This takes a few tries, going up and down the focus distance and even when you think you got the right distance, a few test shots are required to see if it really is the best focus distance.
Once the best focus distance has been set, you can lock the camera onto the photo you want to capture. We normally prefer to add a little safety to prevent the camera from moving by putting down the shutter. This can be done in the settings of the camera and takes away any last trembling that is caused by the shutter moving up and down while taking the picture. We experienced this shutter movement might cause a slight movement atthe beginning of the exposure time and may cause stars to show a slight movement.
As you can tell, there is a lot of preparation involved with star photography. Setting up the camera correctly is therefore very important for a great photo. Just as important as the settings of the camera for the right shot. We mentioned these camera settings a few times before, but since they can be a bit tedious, we will explain them now. There are three main elements involved in photography, which require specific settings for star photography: Exposure time, Aperture and ISO.
Star photography is ideally done in very dark areas, so the light emitted by the stars is extra visible. Yet, the dimness of these light sources requires longer exposure in order to receive enough light on the sensor of your camera for the stars to show. Star photography thus requires longer exposure times, often between 15 and 30 seconds. This can sometimes be even longer, depending on what effect you want to acquire in your photo. An exposure between 15 and 30 seconds, however, offers the best results. It is not uncommon that switching between longer and shorter exposures is required to see which offer the best results and the brightest light from the stars, given the light in your surroundings. Longer exposure times often show more stars, but require darker environments since the sensor will be more prone to light pollution. The exposure time should, nevertheless, not be too long, since the stars will rise across the skies. It is very important to take this movement into account, since it might even make carefully taken shots seem like the camera was moved, while in practice the sky was the only thing moving. It is therefore important to balance out the exposure time with the other settings of your camera; aperture and ISO. There are, however, creative ways to work with this star movement, creating surreal and stunning startrail photos. We will explain that later
The darkness required for star photography also forces lower apertures to be used. When the F-value is set lowest, the lens will let as much light through as possible to reach the sensor, keeping the exposure time as low as possible. When the F-value increases, so will the exposure time required to shoot an image containing the dimmer stars. You will loose the effect of the endless starry skies if one of these two values is set out of proportion. We normally start from the lowest aperture (between F2.8 to F4.5, depending on the lens) and build up until we can see sharpness across the image in both foreground and stars.
Ultimately, the ISO value should be set. This value is often used to compensate any discrepancies in the other two values. For instance, when you want more sharpness across the image (higher F-values), but you want to maintain a lower exposure time. The ISO value compensates part of the light shortage on the sensor. In star photography, this value can actually up the visibility of some dim stars, making the starry skies pop out even more on the image. Yet, when this value is set too high, noise will be introduced in the image, artificially making more stars than the sky contains. The blacks in the image will in that case also be invested with white (and even coloured) dots, taking away most of the nice dark contrasts in star photography. We experienced that settings around approximately ISO 8000 give very good results (this equals around 2000-4000 on regular, DSLR cameras). Of course, you can twitch a bit with these values considering environment light and how much you want the sky to pop. Light pollution will, however, be picked up more easily with higher ISO values.
The magic behind Star trial photography
Like we mentioned, the settings of the camera during star photography depend on the photo you want to take. There are many ways in which you can play around with the settings to obtain different styles of star photography. We already mentioned the essential difference with normal star photography and startrail photography. When you want to capture the starsmoving across the sky, you focus on capturing the “stripes” which the stars leave as these move along the horizon. It thus requires even longer exposure times to track the movement the stars in one or more images, which will have to be compensated if you don’t want your pictures to turn out too overexposed with light pollution. You could use higher F-values to compensate the extra light reaching the sensor or even stop filters or gradual filters if you want to keep depth-of-field in your picture. These tricks should be able to compensate exposure times which can run up to several minutes in total.
It is important to note that most star trail photos are not just one shot, but various shots stacked on top of each other. Without stacking, this one shot would take hours to complete, your memory card would be overloaded and moreover, the shot would have to be perfect right away. Ideally these stacked photos each have an exposure time of more than 1 or even 2 minutes in order to capture a small part of the startrail which the star leaves overnight. You will see the stars form into stripes across the sky and when these photos are taken one after the other, it will show the whole journey of the star. We consider that wider angled lenses are particularly interesting to experiment with, as more startrails will appear on the image and the outer trails or rings will curve more drastically than the rings closer to the horizon. It is, nevertheless, good to know the stars will travel along the horizon. Aiming your camera directly up -depending on where you’re located- will thus often have only little effect in capturing the curving startrails across the sky.
By taking several long-exposure shots and stacking them digitally, the risk of mistakes is decreased and you would beable to adjust the settings with the changing light when the evening fades or the morning appears. It remains, nevertheless, critical to not move the camera in between these shots, as this will cause a double layer or blur in the final picture to occur. There are several programs and software available to do the stacking for the photos. After much research we learned how to apply this technique, but we have had few possibilities to put our knowledge to practice. We will definitely search for more opportunities to apply this very interesting way of capturing night skies and the movement of the stars across the horizon. It results in stunning and surreal images and has lots of potential for photographers looking for some extra challenge.
As much as with normal photography and even startrail photography, editing can help considerably in improving image quality and contrasts in the photo to make it pop even more. It is extremely hard to take perfect shots which are well lit and contain the right colour balance right from the get go. Though we all have shots that we would not want to edit because they actually are perfect, there are many benefits to editing overall, especially with star photography. You are able to balance light levels and give a little more highlight to the foreground or the stars with white balances and contrasts. Coloured skies or milky ways can be emphasised with the sharpness, contrast, and white balances, giving stars overall a brighter look. Further, any excessive noise from imbalanced settings can be suppressed with a few touches in editing.
Overall, star photography is a great desire of evey photographer, beginner or professional. And as you can see, this discipline offers something challenging to all levels. We will definitely keep you up to date about our adventures with night skies and we will post more great pictures as we update the blog and the site! We will of course keep doing so through our other blog posts as well, so stay tuned!