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How to Photograph the Stars

I have always wanted to capture the stars.  Ever since growing up I would sit outside my window and stare out into the endless night sky. Now I spend many nights out in the cold, watching the stars pass by and capturing our galaxy exactly how I see it.

In this post I’ll share with you my tips and tricks on how to make that happen.

You may have tried, and failed your first number of attempts at capturing a sky full of stars. But don’t despair! It is relatively easy once you know what you are doing. Of course having the proper equipment and know-how can greatly improve your chances at achieving actual results, but first, I would like to talk to you about another aspect of night photography that is often overlooked.

Photography is a constant learning experience testing the boundaries of our equipment, of our knowledge and of our physical capabilities. Night photography likes to push these boundaries which is something nobody really talks about. You become a night owl. You will spend a lot of money. And you will spend a lot of time location scouting and waiting, in the dark, for the perfect array of stars.

Some of the darkest skies that I have ever seen were in the rural areas of the northern Island of New Zealand, as well as in my home in South Africa in the little Karoo.

The Karoo and the rural areas of New Zealand had one thing in common. They are beautiful sanctuaries away from big cities and light. This is the single most important criteria to look for when deciding to capture or even observe the night sky. In today’s world we face light pollution wherever we go. A single light bulb is enough to change your view of the stars above you. Astronomers and astrophotographers alike move mountains to find favorable conditions and will often travel far out of a city or even country to escape it. Time to break out google and check for the darkest skies near you, click here for a map of light pollution in the world.

What you will need

There is a ton of gear out in the world that will work for night photography, but I’ll save the skimmers among yourselves the hassle and get right to the good stuff.

Throw out your point and shoot and get your hands on a DSLR or mirrorless camera body that performs good in low light. Pretty much any DSLR or mirrorless body will do for a nice shot of the stars, but of course you can never go wrong with a full frame setup. Although better in low light, it is more expensive and not necessary. It’s the lens that makes most of the difference.

You will need a wide angle, wide open lens. This means anything under 24mm focal length, with an aperture of f/2.8 or lower. Of course you can try with your trusty kit lens, but the results will be mediocre at best. And should you find to really enjoy this new hobby you will most likely upgrade in the near future anyway.

My current setup is the Nikon D850 + Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. But most of the photos on my site were shot with the Nikon D610 + Rokinon 14mm f/2.8.

When to shoot

Although the stars are out all year round, the true object of our desire only becomes visible during certain months of the year, depending on your location in the world.

During the milky way season I like to go out during New Moon. This is the first lunar phase when the moon is between the earth and the sun. It will be your best chance at capturing the stars as this is when they will appear most visible and bright without the moonlight’s distraction. On the other hand you can also use the moon to illuminate your landscape for additional depth. Just keep an eye on the rising and setting of the moon to plan your photo.

Planning your shot

We have already covered the importance of dark skies, but finding the right location and scene is important to create a winning image. It’s good practice to scout your location in daylight. Take note of any man made structures such as windmills, old houses or cars. Find a big lake for great reflections or a mountain range to create a point of interest. Pin it in google maps and return to it at night. Some photographers even stay put exactly where they are, with their camera’s in frame perfectly, and wait for night to come.

There are a number of apps available to help you plan your photograph. My personal favourites include Photopills and Stellarium. With the help of these apps you can plan the exact time and position of the milky way and thus figure out when it will carry the perfect position for your desired photograph.

Taking the Photograph

You will need to try around with different settings until the photo reflects what you want to see, but as a rule of thumb you want to follow the following rules:

1) Lowest possible Apperture
2) Widest possible focal length. This applies if you want to capture the foreground as well as the milkyway. Close up shots of the core are beautiful on their own and don’t require a wide lens, but will require a shorter shutter speed to prevent star trails.
3) Shutter speed between 20-30 seconds. This will greatly depend on your focal length as you will experience star trailing a lot sooner the longer your focal length is.
4) Adjust ISO last depending on need. Usually around ISO 2000 if your camera can handle it.

Finally all that is left is pressing the shutter! As with any long exposure, minimizing camera shake should be a top priority. You can use a cable shutter release, or use your timer for a 2 second gap between your finger touching the shutter and the camera stabilizing.

Last but not least, cover your viewfinder to prevent light leaks, switch off all torches and remember to take in the milkyway through your own eyes.

Equipment, How To, Milky Way, Night Sky, Photography, Stars, Tips

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