Ever wondered how to take pictures of stars? Maybe you don’t know what gear you need, or what camera settings are best for night sky photography. Well, I know from experience that taking pictures of stars can be a challenge, but once you learn the basics and get it right, it can be hugely rewarding and you’ll be able to shoot some stunning photos.
In this post I’m going to share with you everything you need to know about astrophotography to help you get awesome photos of the night sky, including camera settings, gear you need, tips on composition and lots more!
Let’s get started.
Photography Gear you Need to Take Pictures of Stars
First we’re going to cover the photography gear you need for star photography, which might be less than you suspect. Then we’ll discuss the different types of night sky photos you can take, and the camera settings you need to use.
There are a few pieces of photography equipment that you will find will make star photography easier. These are:
1 – A Tripod
Probably the most essential photography accessory to help you take pictures of stars is a tripod. This is because you need to have the camera kept still for time periods that are measured in seconds, and there’s no way you can hold the camera totally still in your hand for that long.
Of course, if you wanted to balance your camera on a rock or something other than a tripod, that is feasible, but my advice is that a tripod is a great way to improve your photography in so many ways (read why here), so you should just get one. See this post for advice on picking the right travel tripod, with suggestions at a wide range of price points.
2 – A Remote Shutter Release
A remote shutter release is a tool that acts as an external shutter button to your camera. The simplest remote shutters are just a cable with a single button on that you connect to your camera. More advanced models, also known as intervalometers, allow you set up sequences of shots over time. So for example, you can set your camera to take 100 images of 30 seconds each.
The reason you need a remote shutter release for taking pictures of the stars is two-fold. First, even with your camera on a tripod, the act of depressing the shutter button can cause small movements that result in image blur. The remote shutter release removes this problem.
The second reason is that, most cameras require a remote shutter release for exposures over 30 seconds., when shooting in what is usually called “BULB” mode, where the shutter effectively stays open for as long as you depress the shutter button.
See here for a listing of remote shutters – make sure you get a model that is compatible with your particular camera brand and model number. They are relatively inexpensive – for example, this Amazon model for Canon cameras is under $10. You can also get remote buttons for smartphones.
3 – A Camera with a Manual or BULB Mode
Obviously, you are going to need some form of camera for astrophotography. The main feature that your camera should have to make life easier for you is a manual mode, which means you can control all the important settings yourself.
For the best results, the settings you need to be able to change are the shutter speed and the ISO, and it is good if you can also adjust the aperture.
You don’t need a high end DSLR for night sky photography, and you can in fact take pictures of stars with a smartphone if you are so inclined. The main thing is that you are able to adjust the shutter speed and mount it to a tripod.
4 – Ideally a camera with a large sensor and a fast, wide-angle lens
To get the best results when you take photos of the stars you will need two things – a camera with a big sensor, and a lens with an aperture that opens as wide as possible. However, you can still get reasonable results (see below) using a less advanced camera like a smartphone or even a point and shoot camera.
However, a bigger sensor will capture more of the available light, meaning you will get better results when shooting at night. Ideally you will want a full frame camera to get the best results. See this guide to picking a travel camera for some suggested models.
The lens you use is also an important factor. A wide angle lens means you can get more of the sky into your shot. A wide aperture means that camera will let more light in, also giving you better results. Apertures are measured in “f” stops, and you want something like f/4 or greater – f/2.8 to f/1.2 would be perfect. See more on camera terminology here.
If you have a interchangeable lens camera like an SLR or mirrorless, this is the sort of lens that is often recommended for astrophotography. Or this, if your budget will stretch to it. Just make sure you buy a lens that is compatible with your brand and model of camera.
How to Take Pictures of Stars
Camera Settings for Taking Pictures of the Stars
Setting your camera up to take photos of the stars is not too hard. First, you will want to put the camera into manual mode (usually “M” on the mode dial), as well as manual focus mode (usually via a switch on the lens). If your camera doesn’t have either of these options, then try and find a long exposure mode at the very least, and some way to set the focus to infinity.
You’ll want to set the camera up on your tripod, and have it pointing at the sky. Set the aperture to as wide as it will go, and set the ISO to between 1600 and 6400 (this will depend on the capabilities of your camera).
You will want to set a shutter speed of between ten and thirty seconds to start with.
One of the harder things in star photography is getting focus. It will usually be too dark for your camera to automatically focus, so use manual focus mode. One tip is to use the camera’s display and zoom in on any bright stars it picks up, then use manual focus to make the star sharp.
Once that is all done, press the remote release button, and wait. After the time is up, you should have an image of the stars that you can use as a benchmark to adjust your settings if necessary, and also to recompose any parts of the shot.
Depending on the type of star photo you want to take, your settings will vary slightly.
There are two types of star photography that you can take. These are static photos, which depict the night sky as we see it, and star trail shots, which are taken over long periods of time, and show the stars as trails of light as they move across the sky.
These two types of star photography are similar, but they require you to go about setting your shot up a little differently. I’ll go over these now.
How to Take Static Pictures of the Stars
Static star pictures are a little bit more gear dependent, because you are limited by how long you can take the picture before the stars start to move across the sky. The time for this varies depending on your focal length, but as a general rule of thumb, exposures longer than around 20 to 30 seconds tend to start showing the movement of the stars.
As a result of this, static star pictures are the images that tend to require higher end cameras and lenses, which let you capture enough light in the window of time available before the movement of the stars changes the look of the shot.
For static shots of the stars, composition is of course important. The milky way is a popular feature to compose around, acting as a giant leading line into the cosmos.
Having something in the foreground, such as a lighthouse, tree, or interesting structure, is also a good idea – a plain shot of the stars isn’t always that impressive. If there isn’t much available light in the foreground, you can illuminate the object with a flashlight – it doesn’t take very much light usually to make foreground objects stand out.
How to Make Star Trail Photos
Star trails are a more accessible form of astrophotography, and one that you can do more easily with less expensive equipment. All you need is time, and a clear sky.
Again, you will want to set your equipment up on a tripod, and plan your composition carefully. You will want to take a few test shots before committing to your final image to make sure everything looks as you want it – you don’t want to waste hours on a shot that isn’t quite right!
You will also want to have an idea of which direction the star trails are going to go. In the northern hemisphere, an easy tip is to find the north star, which stays fixed. All the other stars will appear to rotate around the north star, so if you use the north star in your composition, you will get circular star trails.
Once you have the image properly framed and composed, you have to decide how long to expose the shot for. If you are using a high quality camera, then the best option is to do a series of shorter exposures, around thirty seconds, which you can then stack together in a software tool like Adobe Photoshop.
Shooting a series of shorter thirty second exposures and then stacking them in software will result in cleaner images, as super long exposures (over 30 seconds) can result in images with random pixels of different colour, known as sensor noise. To shoot a series like this, you will need an intervalometer, which will handle taking the sequence of shots for you.
If you are shooting with a smartphone, or a camera with a smaller sensor like a consumer SLR, compact camera, or mirrorless, then you will probably want to use longer shutter speeds in order to get all the light in. You can also reduce the ISO down to a more reasonable 100 – 400. I’d suggest trying for exposures of an hour or longer and seeing how you do.
How to take pictures of stars with Android or iOS smartphones
It is possible to take photos of the night sky with an iPhone or Android smartphone, but don’t expect miracle results. The small sensors inside a smartphone restrict what you can do, but it is certainly possible. Photos of the Northern Lights for example, are more than possible with a smartphone.
You will still need a tripod and some form of remote release, as well as an app that lets you take longer exposures. For example, on the iPhone you can download the NightCap Camera app, and on Android there’s an app called Long Exposure Camera 2.
Whilst a smartphone is unlikely to be able to pick up individual stars in the sky, very long exposures (measured in minutes or hours), will let you capture star trail shots. If you are feeling more advanced, you can pair a smartphone with a telephoto lens, which will let you get shots of subjects such as the moon.
Finally, if you have access to a telescope, you can put your smartphone camera to the eyepiece, using an adaptor like this, which will let you get really nice results of objects like the moon and take advantage of the optics in your telescope.
Apps to Help with Night Sky Photography
There are a few apps that are useful for night sky photography.
First, it’s useful to have an app that can show you the location of the stars, so you can orientate your shot and find things like the Milky Way or the North Star. I like the Sky Map app for Android, and Stellarium is a good option for iPhone.
Next, knowing what time it gets dark wherever you are in the world is very useful. For that I use the Golden Hour app, which will tell you lots of useful information about the light at different times of the day.
Finally, if you’re into chasing the Aurora, you should get an app to notify you of aurora activity. There are a few options, I like Aurora Alert which has lots of useful features.
Can you take Night Sky Photos with a Camera without Manual Settings or Interchangeable Lenses?
It is certainly possible to take photos of the night sky without needing a fancy camera, but you may be limited in terms of the quality of the images you get, and how long you can shoot for.
I would definitely recommend checking your camera or phone manual to see what options you have for longer exposures, to see what you might be able to achieve.
Further Reading on Photography
Hopefully this post has helped you understand some of the concepts you need to understand in order to take pictures of stars and get started with night sky photography in general. I’ve got a few more resources around photography which I think you will find useful, which are:
- My series of photography tips articles, which contain many more posts like this one, to help you improve your photography, as well as this introduction to taking better photos.
- If you need inspiration for locations for your next shoot, take a look at my series of photography location guides
- Our always updated guides to the best travel camera, the best travel camera lens, and the best compact camera for travel
- A guide to neutral density filters, cold weather photography and tips for taking pictures of yourself
- If you’re serious about upping your photography game, check out my comprehensive online photography course, which has loads of detailed information on everything photography related, from nailing the perfect shot every time through to editing and more. It also expands further on night sky photography.
- If you’re in the market for a new camera to take picture of stars with after reading this post, see my guide to picking the best camera to help you decide what to buy.
And that’s it for this post on astrophotography! Hopefully you’re all fired up to get out and take some awesome pictures of the sky. As always, if you have any questions or feedback, let me know in the comments below.
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