How to photograph the stars

If you've got a camera and a clear sky, taking pictures of the night sky is easier than you think.
  •  Stars in sky with yellow sunset
    Jamie Carter
    Last updated: 11 August 2014, 15:45 BST

    You may think that photographing the night sky requires an abundance of expensive kit. It's true that you can’t photograph close-ups of the moon or the planets without a pricey telescope and an equatorial mount, but capturing constellations and creating star trails is easy if you follow a few simple techniques.


    Step 1: Location

    Starry Sky Brombachsee

    Darkness is a must. It's obvious that more stars are visible in complete darkness, but too many stars can make even bright constellations tricky to spot. 

    You don’t have to be away from all civilisation or trek for hours into the mountains - star pictures can be taken in any city, providing you can find a spot away from a streetlight.

    If you're in your back garden, turn off all the lights in the back of the house too.


    Step 2: Preparation

    Velbon tripod

    You don’t need a DSLR to photograph the stars; a compact camera with a firework mode or, ideally, a mode that allows you to alter the shutter speed will do.

    The camera must be completely still, so you'll need a tall tripod and something to kneel on behind (and underneath) it.

    If your camera allows it, get a remote shutter release to banish the camera shake caused by your pressing of the shutter release.

    On compacts, use the camera's self-timer function. Either way, keeping your camera completely still is critical – don't attempt to hold it steady by hand.


    Step 3: Settings

    Person using DSLR close up

    The key to photographing constellations is to keep the shutter open long enough to allow the light to enter the camera, but not so long that the stars blur. It's a reminder that we're moving pretty fast down here on Earth!

    Try these settings:

    • Aperture (F-stop) should be set to low (wide) to allow in as much light as possible.
    • Switch the lens to manual focus and fix the focus on infinity. You can pre-set this while it's still light by focusing on a far-away point and then fixing the lens so it cannot be adjusted. On a compact, try using mountain mode.
    • Set ISO at 400.
    • Adjust the White balance to Tungsten.
    • Experiment with the shutter speed (5, 10, 20 seconds) but any longer than 25 seconds and stars will appear as blurred slits, not points.
    • Too dark? Use a longer shutter speed and increase the ISO.
    • Too light? Use a shorter shutter speed and decrease the ISO, something that will also reduce noise in your photos, and begin to reveal the true colour of red and blue stars.


    [Related article: Beginner's guide to stargazing]

    Step 4: Composition

    Sky with stars by river

    Include something to give perspective in the foreground, such as a tree, building or lake. It's difficult, but not impossible, to photograph landscape and stars together, but you’ll need a longer aperture.

    Finding a balance between keeping the stars still and not underexposing the foreground is tricky, but can be achieved by varying ISO, shutter speed and aperture, depending on results. Many professional shots will actually be two shots stitched together using computer software.


    Step 5: Star trails

    Star trails in purple sky

    Set your camera to bulb mode, which allows the shutter to be held open manually. Set your ISO lower and leave the shutter open for five minutes and you’ll get stars streaking across the sky.

    Leave it open for an hour pointed at Polaris, the North star, and you’ll get complete star circles, as all stars in the Northern Hemisphere appear to rotate around this star.


    Step 6: Don't forget


    Petzl Tikka Plus 2

    You'll need a head torch, ideally with a red light option, and always use the viewfinder, disabling your camera's LCD screen – it saves on battery and reduces unnecessary light.

    If you think you’re getting good and you are a DSLR owner try using the mirror lock-up function for sharper results.

    It goes without saying that winter is the darkest and the best time for star photography, so you'll need to wrap up warm and have a flask of hot drink nearby.

    Jamie Carter
    Last updated: 11 August 2014, 15:45 BST

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