How to Photograph Stars

Pelican Flyer  |  June 24, 2020

Anyone who has ever attempted to snap a shot of a star or planet knows that it’s seemingly impossible to capture that same wonderous feeling and spectacular view through a camera lens. What looks bright, mystical and awe-inspiring in real life just looks like a blurry blob on the screen. And yet, we frequently see breathtaking celestial snapshots all over the internet. So, it begs the question: What are we doing wrong?

In this guide, we’re going over a few of the basics of photographing the night sky (astrophotography) so you can take out-of-this-world pics that capture that special real-life feeling you get from gazing upward.

1. Shoot When the Moon is Dim

Your camera shouldn’t have to compete with other light sources, so pack up your hiking camera backpack and head off the grid. Make sure to pay attention to the phases of the moon to ensure that it doesn’t overpower your ability to capture the stars. Shoot (pun intended) for an evening when the moon is at or below 50 percent brightness. In other words, don’t head out and expect incredible shots if there’s a full moon.

2. Get Out of the City

Again, competing light sources can compromise your ability to get that picture-perfect shot of the heavens, so you’ve got to head away from the bright lights of the city. You won’t be able to get a great view of the sky when there’s a ton of light pollution, so seek out International Dark Sky Places for exceptionally dark locales that make great astrophotography sites.

3. Scout the Perfect Shooting Spot

If you want to capture a specific star, constellation or planet, you’re going to need to figure out where it is in the sky and if it’s visible at certain times of the year. You can use a star map or an app on your phone to discover what’s viewable in your area at the time. Also, consider scouting out a cool spot with some interesting objects in the foreground —trees, mountains or other natural features — to add some interest to your shots. Head out before the sun goes down to find the perfect spot.

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4. Know Your Camera Settings

Now it’s time to get technical. For the ideal star shots, you need to have a camera that uses manual mode so you can customize every setting. Star photography is, by nature, a challenge — you’re shooting a bright, far away object in the dark, and doing it well, in large part, often depends on your camera settings. As you shoot more and more, you’ll become more comfortable with these settings and will find a combination that works perfectly for you.

  • Aperture.Start by setting your aperture to the widest-open setting (the lowest number possible). Now that it’s on the lowest number, you will have more flexibility when adjusting your shutter speed and ISO.
  • Shutter speed. Shutter speed is crucial to good astrophotography because stars move, and you don’t want any “star-trailing” or streaks to appear in your shots. To get super-precise about shutter speed, you can use the 500 rule. If this is too complicated, start with an exposure of 15 to 30 seconds and experiment from there.
  • ISO. You want to find the ideal ISO settings for your star photos so that they’re clear and bright without degrading the quality of the image. Finding the right ISO comes down to a bit of experimentation. Start at around 1,600 and don’t go over 4,000 for the best results. For better contrast, consider turning your ISO down and your exposure up.

5. Have the Right Gear

We’ve all tried to snap pics of the sky with our smartphone and, unfortunately, they just never turn out that great. The two most basic pieces of gear you’ll need for a successful night of shooting are a camera with a manual setting and a wide-angle lens. Be sure to stock your camera backpack with some additional night-shooting basics, including a flashlight or headlamp, maps, a tripod and backup batteries.

Heading out into a dark area to take some amazing pics of the stars is an excellent way to get to know the night sky and capture the moment for a lifetime. Whether you’re an amateur photographer or an old pro, there’s nothing better than packing up your camera case and spending an evening shooting beneath the wide-open sky. Let’s go shooting stars!

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