Shoot For the Stars

Today’s Post by Jason Anderson

We’ve been looking to the night skies for a long time, so it’s no surprise that as soon as we could, we started to try and capture them with cameras.  It’s tricky though because the night sky has probably one of the most challenging sets of conditions to work with:  completely areas dotted by completely white areas.  In the days of film, reciprocity failure was a concern.  Digital has accounted for that but has presented its own set of problems, with the most obvious artifact being noise.


Even with the problems associated with shooting stars, the allure is still there.  To help you address some of the more basic considerations, here’s a laundry list of tips for astral-photography:

  1. Dress in layers – it will start warm but get colder as the night goes on, so be prepared!
  2. Take many many batteries!  Long exposures will drain your battery quickly!
  3. Make sure you set your focus to infinity before it gets dark, then turn off Auto Focus!
  4. If you have a cable release, switch to bulb mode and use your stopwatch to track exposure times.
  5. Take your camera off auto white balance (if not already)
  6. Crank up the ISO (you’re going to get noise anyway, so why fight it?)
  7. Dial your aperture just a bit back from wide open to avoid the pitfalls of less sharp images
  8. If you are trying to shoot star trails, your exposure time should be no less than 10 minutes to get any substantial movement – but you preferably should be going for about 30 minutes to an hour…the longer your exposure time, the longer the star trail! You can layer images afterwards in Photoshop to reduce noise so I’ve often done 30 minute intervals and overlaid them to get longer trails with shorter durations.
  9. Another consideration if shooting star trails is to figure out how to get your camera setup aligned on a pole.  It’s called polar alignment, and there’s a great how-to on it here.
  10. If you want crisp images of the night sky (i.e. no star trails), you will need something to move your camera along as you track the stars through the sky.  You can either pony up and buy an expensive setup called an equatorial mount, or you can build your own star tracker (I did a write-up on how to do it here.

There is, of course, much more to fine tune the craft of astral-photography, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Much of what works is learned through trial and error, so the last tip to take with you before you get started in shooting the stars is to be patient.  In the world of immediate gratification, patience often comes in woefully late, and that just is a recipe for disaster in astral-photography.

Obviously your gear selection will vary depending on what you are trying to shoot (stars versus the moon, and wide panoramas of a night sky versus deep sky objects like galaxies and nebulae), but some basic equipment include needed for any astral photography work that’s made it into my bag includes:  tripod, cable release, red flashlight, stopwatch (your smart phone will likely have an app for this), warm beverage (coffee, hot chocolate, etc.), a book (or an iPad fully charged!), and of course, that dose of patience!

Like these tips?  Visit Jason over at his website for more useful tips, tricks, articles, insights and more on how to make and take better photographs!

Author: Joe Farace

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