Tutorial #15: Night Sky & Star Photography

posted in: Meteors, Night, Sky, Tips, Tutorials | 0


Things you will need:

— Tripod
— Wide angle lens (8mm to 30mm) with a large aperture (f/1.4 – f/4)
— Remote shutter release or timer is optional for this one if your camera is able to do 20 or 30 second long exposures.

The first thing you need is complete darkness. This means shooting during a full moon as far away from city lights as possible. Wide angle lenses with larger apertures work best. They will allow you to leave shutter open the longest to capture the most starlight without getting any star trails.

ISO, Focus & Aperture:

The ISO should be fairly high, so something around 1600 works well. Some photographers like to shoot it a bit overexposed on a higher ISO and then darken the image in post. This is done to capture the most light and detail from the stars a possible.

Next, compose your shot however you like, and set the focal ring on the lens to the infinity mark and leave the aperture open to the largest aperture that the lens has.

You can have a treeline in the foreground or maybe large rock formations, the ocean, or other things like that for an interesting composition. You can even light the scene for a moment to get foreground details alongside the stars.

You can also find specific constellations. There are several apps that can help you locate constellations. I used to use Google Sky Map, but you can just use a regular sky map and find them yourself.

The 500 Rule:

As far as shutter speeds go, there is something called the 500 rule that can serve as a guide to the maximum amount of seconds you can set an exposure for before you end up with star trails.

First you take the focal length of the lens, remembering to take into account any crop factor your camera might have. (Canons usually have a 1.6x crop and Nikons a 1.5x crop.) So if you have a 24mm lens with a crop factor of 1.6x then you multiply 24 by 1.6 and get 38.4. Then you take 500 and divide it by 38.4. You will get 13.02. That means the max number of seconds before you end up with star trails during an exposure will be 13 seconds or either 10 or 15 seconds if you round it off. I find that you can easily round up a few seconds and it will work just fine. The wider the focal length the longer you will be allowed to have an exposure.

35mm equivalent focal length (number on the lens) x crop factor (1.5x or 1.6x) = actual focal length

500 / Actual focal length = estimated maximum number of seconds for exposure

I’ve often shot star photos with a 17mm lens with a 1.6x crop factor and have been able to leave it for 20 seconds without seeing star trails. The best photos I got were with a 10mm lens that I’ve left for up to 30 seconds.

You can use this method to capture meteor showers or random shooting stars, such as the image at the top of this page. You will clearly see the long trails the meteors create against the static stars in the background.


Things you will need:

— Any lens
— f/8 or f11
— Bulb mode
— Remote shutter release/timer
— A fully charged battery and a backup battery

In this case, you don’t need to worry about the sky movement because that’s exactly what you want to capture. Using a long lens will allow you to do shorter exposures while still capturing a lot of star trails. You will have to worry about running out of time and battery power. Exposures will need to go on for as long as an hour.

Tip: Turn off any noise reduction your camera might have on. It just makes the image blurry and weird.

ISO, Focus, & Aperture:

To get star trails, you want to prolong the exposure as much as possible by using an ISO of 100 and an aperture of f/8 or f/11. You will need to set your focus ring to the infinity setting.

Exposure Time:

Unless you think you can hold the shutter down while remaining completely still for an hour, you will need a remote shutter or timer. Most cameras will only have a max 30 second long shutter speed. Beyond that, you have to use bulb mode or a mode that works with a remote shutter or timer. I prefer the timer because then I don’t have to keep track of the exposure time.

The advantage of a remote shutter release, like the one on the right, is that it doesn’t require a battery to work; the timer does.

It plugs right into the camera port, and it’s ready to use in either bulb mode or timer mode.

If you don’t leave the exposure for a long enough time this happens. Not very aesthetic. Leave it longer than an hour.

Much better.

Also, try to get that circular shape in the frame. Find the star Polaris and aim your lens in a northern direction. Looks much better.


Things you will need:

— Tripod
— Wide angle lens 8mm to 30mm
— Remote shutter release/timer also optional if your camera does 20 – 30 second exposures.

These photos actually require some amount of light from the moon to work — ideally a full moon. If you don’t want to wait for a new moon to come around and just want some night photos you can try some night landscapes. If the exposure is left long enough the photos can look almost like some strange surreal daylight, but with stars in the background.

The settings for these type of photos will be similar to shooting star and meteor photos, but you can try different things. Try a low ISO with a longer exposure, or a higher ISO with a shorter exposure. You can try different aperture settings, or calculate the hyperfocal distance and shoot a landscape as if it were daytime.
You can learn about hyperfocal distance in Tutorial #8.

This photo I shot on 35mm ISO 400 film with a digital crop lens. That’s the reason for the circular image, the lens is meant for a 1.6x cropped sensor.

You can also get some nice shots of clouds passing by stationary objects if it’s windy and cloudy out. The wind was strong in the photo above, so the tree was also a bit blurred.

Tip: If the wind is strong, try to block the wind with your body or place your camera behind something that will. This will help avoid camera shake.

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