Saturday, November 29, 2014

Tips and Tricks for Photographing the Stars

When Silkworm and I look up at the sky over our backyard on a clear night, we can probably count the amount of stars we can see. But when we bring out the camera, we get to see this:

ISO: 1600 || Aperture: f/1.8 || Shutter speed: 6 seconds

ISO: 1600 || Aperture: f/2.5 || Shutter speed: 5 seconds

ISO: 1250 || Aperture: f/3.5 || Shutter speed: 10 seconds

I think the coolest thing about photographs is that they don't really capture a split second, when you get down to the science of shutter speed. As long as the shutter is open, the camera is capturing time and turning it into pixels. That means that there is a whole stilled moment in every photograph, whether it was a fraction of a second or a handful of seconds--even minutes. And that means, you can bring out the stars human eyes can't see, because your camera is patient enough to wait for the light to reach it from billions of light years away.

Here's how we do it.

|| You'll need ||
Camera with ability to adjust shutter speed and aperture (DSLR)
Shutter release cable or remote (optional)
Starry skies

|| Camera settings ||
Set the aperture to a low number/wide opening (f/3.5 or lower).
The wider you go, the more light will reach your camera's sensor, which means more stars will show up. I often use anything above f/3.

Set the ISO to a high number.
High ISOs are usually used for steadying movement in action shots, but in this case, it's about how much light is allowed to reach your camera's sensor. The higher the ISO, the more light the sensors can slurp up and document, so set it pretty high--but not too high (over 1800) because then you'll end up with grain and noise stealing the stars' show.

Use a long shutter speed.
Anything over 6 seconds should bring out some stars. The longer the shutter stays open, the more light the sensor can detect and therefore the more stars your camera can capture.

|| Other stuff ||
Wait until about 2 hours after sunset to shoot.
If you go out too early and the sky's still a bit light, you won't be able to leave the shutter open long enough to capture a lot of stars without overexposing your photo or making it look like daytime.

Set your camera up away from any lights.
Streetlights overhead or house lights beside the camera might cause flares--and not the cool kind. Make sure, to the best of your abilities given your location, that you're surrounded by nothing but darkness.

Use Bulb Mode to keep the shutter open longer than 30 seconds.
If your photos aren't coming out bright enough or you're not capturing enough stars, switch to "Bulb Mode," which allows you to keep the shutter open as long as you're pressing the shutter button. You'll have to keep your finger very still for this, but if you have shaky hands, you can always use a shutter release remote or cable that's compatible with your camera. However, keep in mind...

Unless you want to shoot star trails, don't use shutter speeds longer than 25-30 seconds.
Stars move. The longer you keep the shutter open, the more likely you are to capture their movement in pixels. It's like light painting at light speed--slowed by the distance of millions and billions of miles. Star trails can make for some pretty cool shots, though.

Shoot in RAW format.
Shooting in RAW vs. JPEG allows you so much more freedom over the exposure of your photographs. Only certain programs like Photoshop Elements have RAW image converters that allow you to turn RAW images into JPEG images to edit or use them elsewhere, but it's well worth it.

You want a lot of light to reach your camera's sensor. Use a high ISO, a wide aperture, and a long shutter speed while your camera is steady on a tripod, and play around with the settings until they're perfect for the sky you're shooting. Wait until the sky is as dark as it's gonna get, shoot where there's no lights overhead or close beside you, and use RAW format for the best control over your photographs post-processing.

If you have any questions, leave 'em in the comments! We'll reply by email if you leave an email address, or you can just come back here to see what we said.


  1. This is so great! After your post Ode to the stars I was wondering how to do this. I think I know how I'm going to be spending my nights during the christmas holidays now. x

    1. Ahh, good, I'm glad it was useful to someone! I hope you get tons of awesome shots. ^-^

  2. This was really cool! I would never think to do this but now I'm itching to try it!

  3. What wonderful tips! I wish we could see he stars better where I live. :)
    Amy xx

    Perfect Imperfections

  4. Wow, this was super helpful.
    Those pictures are stunning!
    Now I just need to buy myself a tripod...

    1. Thank you! Just a hint about tripods--there's this one called a Gorillapod that sells for $50 and though it has short legs, you can wrap it around stuff like tree branches and what not, and it actually comes in handy when a straight standing tripod wouldn't be able to balance on the ground, or when you want an angle from above, or when you want to frame a shot with leaves by putting the camera in the trees. Just a tip! :)

  5. haha! i remember you saying that you wrote a big reply and decided to turn it into a post. i'm so glad you did! (i do that sometimes,too.) i've always been a big fan of stargazing and stuff. i've never had a dslr so i'm always a bit behind when i comes to photographing them, though. my canon ultra zoom does have manual mode, but it restricts me on some things :( this post makes me want to go out and buy a dslr if not just to capture the stars. beautiful work here!

    1. I think there are a couple of cheaper point and shoot cameras with full manual mode (aperture, shutter speed, ISO)! I'll have to research it. DSLRs are expensive, but if you can afford a few hundred dollars ($400-$500ish) for a refurbished older version like the D5000 I have, it's SO worth it.

  6. I always want to shoot stars! Great handy tips thank you very much c:

  7. I like the idea of the shutter speed waiting for the light of the stars to reach it from so far away.
    This is was really neat Carly!
    I just need to find somewhere far enough from the city to see the stars!

  8. I would love to shoot the stars one day! Your tips are really useful, will definitely keep this in my mind. Oh, and those drawings are so cute.

  9. Ohh, thanks for this! I'm pinning it for later!


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