A beginner's guide to shooting the stars / by Hannah Prewitt

I’m not sure that I feel qualified to write a tutorial on astro photography, but it’s been personally requested, and I have been able to successfully produce some pretty nice night photos without any assistance so I must have some idea what I’m talking about. However, by no means do I consider myself an expert on the subject, so if you have any tips for me, please leave them in the comments below. So let’s call this ‘A beginner’s guide to star photography’.

I’m going to try and make this as simple as possible, so this first part will be about how to physically shoot the image. Then I’ll write another post explaining how to edit your image.

Location

I’m not going to talk too much about locations, because basically, you can shoot the night sky anywhere, assuming you’re outside. However, you want to try to minimise light pollution so that you can really see the stars clearly. So try to get as far away from cities and houses as you can. If you can get to a beach, or rural area, a field or mountain, they should all work pretty well.

How to shoot the stars photography tutorial for beginners

Composition

If you’re just aiming to get a photo of the milky way, then point your camera in that direction and get clicking. However, if you want to make your image a bit more interesting then we want to try and get something else in the image as well. Find something to silhouette, or put something in the foreground, or even get someone to stand still in your photo. I personally find composition one of the most difficult things about shooting at night because it’s hard to see in the dark. So you’ll have to take a few test shots just to check that you’re actually shooting what you think you are.

Equipment

Usually I say that equipment doesn’t matter, but when it comes to shooting in very low light, it does. You will need a tripod. A good one. It’s really important that your camera stays absolutely still while the shutter is open, otherwise your image will not be sharp. In terms of the camera itself, ideally you want to shoot with a full frame sensor, but if you only have a crop one, that will work too. With regards to lenses, you’re probably going to want to use a nice wide angle lens if you have one, so that you get as much in the image as possible. I shoot all my night photos at 16 mm, which is perfect for getting in the whole milky way as well as something in the foreground (remember if you’re using a crop frame camera then 16 mm will be the equivalent of about 24 mm depending on the camera model). You will also need to have access to Adobe Lightroom or equivalent editing software.

How to shoot the stars photography tutorial

SETTINGS

 First of all, you must shoot in RAW. If you don’t already, then now is the best time to start. I remember reading a blog back in the day by a photographer who regretted not switching to raw earlier. I ignored it because I didn’t understand the reason behind it, and now I wish I’d done it earlier. Basically, a jpeg is a lossy file, which means that it loses data and really limits your editing potential. The only time I shoot in jpeg now is when I’m shooting a lot of surfers and I need to save space, and I know I won’t be doing much editing at all.

The next thing we want to do is set our focus. The autofocus on your camera works by using contrast, which it will struggle to find at night because everywhere is dark. If you have a very bright spot, you might be able to use autofocus, but I always switch to manual. You then have two options. You can either set your manual focus to almost infinity when it’s still light and then tape the focus ring in place, or you can use your camera’s live view and zoom in on the stars and set your focus, which is what I do.

I also read somewhere that you should turn off your lens’ image stabilisation if you have it, so I do that too.

We will also need to use our camera in manual mode. If you’re not yet comfortable shooting in full manual mode, now is a good time to start that as well. In terms of the settings we choose, think of your camera as needing access to as much light as possible.

So you’ll need to use a nice wide aperture, but not so wide that the image is blurry. I use f/4 because that’s the widest my lens will shoot at, but f/2.8 would work great too. Then we can set our ISO. We’ll need to bump this up a little but not so much that there is excessive noise in our image. So it really depends on the capabilities of your camera. Most blogs will tell you to start at an ISO of 1600 (which is pretty high if your camera isn’t great), and then move up from there, but I’ve managed to achieve great images with an ISO as low as 400. It also depends on how much light is in your shot. I would start at 800 and adjust as needed. Be aware that the photo on your camera will look very dark! But not to worry, we’ll be bringing out all the data in Lightroom afterwards.

For your shutter speed, we need to use something called the 500 rule to calculate the longest shutter speed we can use with our specific lens in order to maintain a sharp image. The rule is simple. Divide 500 your focal length. So I use a focal length of 16 mm, so 500/16 is 31.25, which means that I can use a shutter speed up to 30 seconds and still get a sharp image. If I were shooting at let’s say 24 mm, then 500/24 is 20.8, so I would need to keep my shutter speed at 20 seconds or less. Unless of course, you want to get a blurry shot. Star trails look amazing. I haven’t personally done them because I don’t have a remote timer, but if you want to try this, then set your shutter speed to bulb (it took me SO long to discover what this was!) and you can then manually set your timer.

For your white balance, well I don’t ever set my white balance unless I’m shooting underwater. If you shoot in raw, you have full control over your white balance in post, so just set it to auto and forget about it.

And that’s pretty much it! Here’s a nice summary of the settings you can use. Remember that this is just a guide to get you started, and you will probably need to adjust things a little.

Star photography settings for beginners