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How to take pictures of the stars

How to take pictures of the stars

Learn how to take pictures of the stars with this ultimate guide to Astrophotography. The guide begins by explaining how Astrophotography works and which cameras and lenses work best for night time photography.

Additionally, find out what camera settings you should use to take pictures of stars, the best conditions for astrophotography, and how you can find the Milky Way.

Table of Contents

  1. What is Astrophotography
  2. How Astrophotography works
  3. Best Camera for Astrophotography Beginners
  4. Best Lenses for Astrophotography
  5. Camera Accessories for Astrophotography
  6. Camera settings for Astrophotography
  7. Best Conditions for Astrophotography
  8. How to find the Milky Way

1. What is Astrophotography

Astrophotography is photographing the night sky. This may include star constellations, planetary bodies, and the Milky Way.

This particular guide focuses on photographing the stars since photographing planetary bodies, such as the Moon, requires a significantly different approach.

Astrophotography: How to take pictures of the stars
The Milky Way. 30 Second Exposure

2. How Astrophotography Works

The night sky is, well, pretty dark. Yet your camera needs a good supply of light to produce bright photos. Normally, this means using slow shutter speeds for long, lazy exposures.

However, since the Earth is in constant rotation, the stars move relative to your position. Therefore, to capture pin-sharp stars without motion blur, you must fast shutter speeds.

Therefore, the quality of your picture of the stars is dependent on you choosing a shutter speed slow enough to capture sufficient light for a bright photo yet fast enough to avoid blurring the stars.

In addition to setting your own shutter speed, astrophotography also requires you to set your own aperture, ISO, and focus. As you will be using very slow shutter speeds, photographing the stars requires a tripod.

4. Best Camera for Astrophotography Beginners

Entry-level digital SLRs such as the Nikon D3500 or Canon’s EOS 100D are great value cameras for those new to taking pictures of the stars. If you prefer a mirrorless camera, Canon’s M200 is both affordable and up to the task.

Best camera for Astrophotography Beginners

There are three things you can consider when buying a camera for astrophotography.

4.1. Sensor Size

Astrophotography is about having a limited amount of time to capture as much light as possible. Therefore, it makes sense to have a large sensor with a larger surface to capture more light.

Indeed, the more light your sensor receives, the more you can increase your camera’s ISO, and the brighter your photo will be. Learn all about ISO.

Entry-level Digital SLRs feature an APS-C sensor 20 times larger than those typically found in smartphones and compact cameras. Hence, clean, bright photos at ISO 1600 and beyond. If you can stretch your budget further, you might even consider a full-frame camera. Compare different sensor sizes.

4.2. Interchangeable Lenses

The 18-55mm kit lens is a great choice for astrophotography beginners. For instance, it provides a wide field-of-view when set to 18mm, and you even get a reasonably bright aperture of F3.5. Furthermore, it’s practically free when bought with the camera.

However, if your enthusiasm for taking pictures of the stars grows, astrophotography with the kit lens may no longer cut the mustard. Consequently, you will find yourself drawn to wider, brighter lenses cable of giving you faster exposures for brighter photos. See the best lenses for Astrophotography below.

Hence, the best cameras for astrophotography allow you to switch lenses.

4.3. Manual Controls

Astrophotography requires you to turn away from your camera’s automatic modes and set your own focus, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

Whilst this may sound intimidating if you are used to using your camera’s automatic modes, you will actually pick it up quite easily.

However, I highly recommend you equip yourself with a camera you feel comfortable with.

For example, some cameras bury their settings within incomprehensible menus whilst others feature easy to access physical buttons and dials.

Thus one of the reasons why I recommend entry-level digital SLRs since they have great ergonomics and accessible controls.

5. Best Lenses for Astrophotography

For photographing planetary bodies such as the moon, you want as much zoom as you can afford. For instance, you will want at a focal length of least 300mm if you are using an entry-level DSLR.

However, the best lenses for taking pictures of the stars and Milky Way are fast aperture, wide-angle lenses.

5.1. Wide-angle lenses mean longer exposures.

The wider your lens focal length, the longer your shutter speed can be before the stars suffer motion blur. Learn about Focal Length

To illustrate, going by the 500 rule, the slowest shutter speed you can use to capture pin-sharp stars with a 28mm lens is 17 seconds.

Yet, you can expose for 27 seconds with an 18mm lens. That’s a lot more light and a much brighter photo.

5.2. Larger aperture, more light

Your lens aperture controls the amount of light your camera’s sensor, or film, receives in any given instant.

For example, a lens with an aperture of F2 provides almost twice the light as the F3.5 maximum aperture of the 18-55mm kit lens. Learn all about aperture.

5.3. You can skimp on autofocus

Astrophotography requires manual focus since the night sky provides too little light for most autofocus systems to work.

Thereby you can save a little money and purchase a manual focus only lens.

5.3. Recommendations

There are so many lenses that I could never mention them all in this guide. So long as your lens features a wide field of view and a nice, fast, bright aperture – you will be good to go.

You can take good photos with the stars with your kit lens but if you want a lens especially for astrophotography, Rokinon and Samyang offer a range of affordable, manual focus, prime lenses such as the 16mm F2.0.

The affordable, manual focus Rokinon is sharp, wide (16mm), and bright (F2).

6. Camera Accessories for Astrophotography

Astrophotography demands a few accessories above an beyond a camera and lens.

6.1. Best Tripod for Astrophotography

The best value tripod I have ever used for Astrophotography and photography, in general, is Manfrotto’s BeFree Advanced. Of course, there are plenty of alternatives tripods that cover the three most important aspects.

My favorite travel tripod.

First, ensure you buy a tripod with a ball joint head and a quick-release system. Whilst a quick release system is hardly essential for the slow pace of astrophotography, it is convenient. However, the ball joint is essential since it makes moving your camera and framing your shot so easy.

Second, ensure the tripod’s weight is not a problem for you. Whilst 3 kilograms is not a lot when picking one up for a moment, you might feel different if you have to carry it to a spot miles away.

Third, make sure its stable. After all, you don’t want wobble blurring your photos.

6.2. A head torch

Most cameras don’t have illuminated buttons and even if yours does, it would not prevent you from stepping into puddles and tripping over sheep.

In addition, you can use your head torch for a spot of light painting.

Let me be first to say that my light painting skills need work,

6.3. Warm clothes

The best conditions for taking pictures of the stars are cold evenings since the lack of heat-haze results in sharper photos.

Dress warm and wear gloves as your tripod will feel near freezing.

Its dark so no one will see.

6.4. Microfiber Cloth

Due to the cold, your front lens element will fog over frequently and ruin your photo if left unattended.

6. Camera Settings for Astrophotography

Taking pictures of the stars usually requires you to set your camera to manual and set your own focus, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

Whilst this may sound intimidating, it just requires practice and a little trial and error.

6.1. How to focus for Astrophotography

As you will be photographing distant objects, you will need to switch your lens from autofocus to manual focus and set your lens to infinity.

However, if you are planning on capturing the Milky Way with an Earthbound foreground, you will need to ensure both your foreground and background are in focus. This useful technique is covered in this post about hyperfocal distance.

Setting focus to infinity can be very difficult in the dark. Therefore, use autofocus during the day to set your focus to infinity or take a series of test photos, checking and adjusting focus as required.

Astrophotography: How to take pictures of the stars
Naseby Swimming Dam, New Zealand

6.2. Shutter Speed: The 500 rule for Astrophotography

The best shutter speed for Astrophotography is one that is slow enough to maximize the collection of light yet not so slow that the stars are captured in motion.

To find your ideal shutter speed, try the 500 rule for astrophotography.

Divide 500 by your equivalent focal length to determine your ideal shutter speed. For instance, if you are shooting at 28mm, dividing 500 by 28 tells you to set a shutter speed no slower than 17 seconds. Learn all about Focal Length

However, you must divide 500 by your equivalent (to full-frame) focal length. A 28mm lens on an entry-level DSLR featuring an APS-C sensor is equivalent to 42mm in which case you would divide 500 by 42 (12 seconds). Learn more about equivalent focal length.

6.3. Best Aperture for Astrophotography

Since you require as much light as possible, the best aperture for astrophotography is your largest. Thus you use your lowest possible F-number. For instance, the largest aperture for a kit lens set to 18mm is F3.5. Learn more about Aperture

However, if your photo of the stars is to include an Earth-based foreground, you may need to use a smaller aperture (larger F-number) to keep both the foreground and the stars in focus.

Astrophotography: How to take pictures of the stars
Warrington Beach, New Zealand

6.4. ISO

Your camera’s ISO boosts the brightness of your photograph. For example, setting your camera to ISO1600 will result in a photo 16 times brighter than a photo taken at ISO100.

However, the further you boost your ISO, the more your photo’s image quality will degrade. As a result, you must increase your ISO no more than you need to.

The best cameras for astrophotography are those with large sensors since they produce better-looking photos at high ISOs. Learn all about ISO.

6.5. Set your camera’s timer

When taking pictures of the stars, your camera must remain absolutely still throughout exposure to ensure a sharp photo. Even the action of you pressing the shutter release is enough to introduce sufficient wobble to blur your photo.

With this in mind, you can set your camera’s timer so exposure begins a few seconds after you have pressed the shutter release button, therefore, giving your camera time to return to a stable state before exposure begins.

Alternatively, you can purchase a remote shutter release for hands-free exposures.

Infrared remotes are small and affordable, particularly off-brand models.

7. Best conditions for Astrophotography

Winter is a great time for taking pictures of the stars. For one thing, sunset arrives sooner and cold air means less shimmer (light diffraction) and sharper photos.

Obviously, you want as little cloud cover as possible. Furthermore, you must be well clear of strong light sources such as street lamps, car headlights, and even the Moon itself.

Astrophotography: How to take pictures of the stars
Watch out for Light Pollution. This was caused by a street lamp 400 meters away

8. How to find the Milky Way

If the conditions are good, the Milky Way is visible to the naked eye. If you need help finding it, apps such as Sun Surveyor lite tell you where it is and alert you to the best times to photograph it.

The Milk Way relative to my position

How to take pictures of the stars and Milky Way

Take your own amazing photos of the stars and Milky Way with this step-by-step guide.

How to take pictures of the Milky Way

  1. Find the Milky Way

    In ideal conditions, the Milky Way is visible to the naked eye. Alternatively, apps such as Sun Surveyor Lite will tell you exactly where it is relative to your own position

  2. Compose your shot

    Having arrived at the scene, decide how you want to compose your photo before mounting your camera to your tripod. Make sure your tripod is tight and sturdy since any movement or creep will blur your photo.

  3. Set your camera to manual mode

    Manual mode is often accessible via a mode dial on top of your camera. It’s usually marked ‘M’.

  4. Set your aperture

    Your camera needs as much light as possible. Therefore, set your lens aperture to its largest, brightest setting.

    Aperture is measured in F-Stops with small numbers such as F1.8 representing larger, bright apertures. In contrast, large numbers such as F11 represent small, dim apertures.

    If you are using your kit lens, your largest, brightest aperture is likely to be F3.5.Apertures Compared

  5. Set your shutter speed

    Your shutter speed needs to be slow enough to capture as much light as possible yet not so slow that it records the stars moving through the frame causing star trails. Fortunately, this is quite easy thanks to the 500 rule.

    To find your ideal shutter speed, divide 500 by your equivalent focal length.

    For example, if you are using a 28mm lens, dividing 500 by 28 tells you to use a shutter speed no slower than 17 seconds.

  6. Set your Camera’s ISO

    Set your ISO between 1600 and 3600. If you can achieve a sufficiently bright photo with a lower ISO, you should since high ISO’s degrade your photo’s image quality. Learn more about ISO.

  7. Go Hands Free

    The action of you pressing your camera’s shutter release will wobble your camera and potentially blur your photo.

    Most cameras have timers. By using your timer, you add a delay between you handling the camera and exposure. As a result, your camera has time to return to a stable position before taking the photo.

  8. Manually Focus

    The night sky usually provides insufficient light for most camera autofocus systems to work. Therefore, you must manually set your lens to infinity.

    However, this can be more troublesome than it sounds. Fortunately, all that stands between you and a pin sharp photo is a little trial and error.

  9. Take the photo and review

    Astrophotography is an iterative process and the perfect photo arrives only after a number of test shots.

    Therefore, review each photo and make any necessary adjustments to shutter speed, focus, and ISO, and try again.

    Good luck!

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