How to Take Pictures of the Stars - Astrophotography

KodyWallice

New member
Last night, I went outside to take a few photos of my pool. It was dark out there and the pool filter was making ripples in the water. I thought it would look cool if I captured the ripples over a few seconds, sort of like those silky waterfall shots you see so prevalently on the internet. Well, I took a couple of photos that turned out lousy and then, since I was already outside with my camera, I decided to grab a couple of images of the stars. They were out in all their glory and I had the camera, the tripod and everything else I needed.

So I snapped a few photos. This is the best one.

stars-night.jpg

Camera: Canon Rebel T7i
Shutter Speed: 30s
Aperture: f/2.8
ISO: 200
Focal Length: 24mm

Pretty bad, right? Hey, at least I got the stars. Consider this: I didn't focus the camera, I used only aperture priority, I used a random shutter speed of 30 seconds and an ISO value of 200. It was like I was basically taking photos with my eyes closed. So, here's what I'm thinking - if I can take this shot and have it look bad but viewable, anyone with the right gear can take one that's a hundred times better. That is, if they follow the instructions I'm going to offer down below.

As you may or may not know, taking good photos of the stars (astro photography) isn't the easiest of tasks. I can take dozens of these awful pictures and never get it right. It's not until I set the camera properly that I'll get the winner I'm after.

Down below, I'm going to give you explicit instructions that should help you take these kinds of night shots. After you read through them, you'll see that producing wonderful looking photographs isn't out of your reach. And I suspect that after you get the hang of it, you'll be carrying your camera with you at night, no matter where you go. Well, you'll need to carry a tripod too. Don't forget that.

I'll try to make things easier to read by breaking them down into groups. Here goes.

Gear: You'll need a tripod, a DSLR camera, a head lamp to see what you're doing and a fast, wide-angle lens. Lenses are generally considered fast when they have a maximum aperture that's between f/2.8 and f/1.2 or larger. Basically, you need as much light as possible to reach the camera's sensor so that's why you need a huge aperture. For the lens above, I was using a 24mm f/2.8 Canon lens. I was also using a Canon T7i, which has a cropped sensor, so the 24mm was really a 38mm. I think it was still wide enough for some decent photos though.

500 Rule: This is a shutter speed rule you'll need to follow for the best star shots. Take the number 500 and then divide that by your lens's focal length. So in my case, if I divide 500 by 24, I'll get a rounded number of 20 (500/24 = 20). That should be my maximum shutter speed. But, since I was using a camera with a cropped sensor, the focal length was really 38mm. So, if I do that calculation again, I'll get the proper shutter speed of 13 seconds.

Settings: Use full Manual mode on your camera and also set your focus to manual as well. This way, if you find your focus and lock it in, you'll be good for the rest of the night. To focus, find the brightest star in the sky and focus in on that. Use your magnification feature if necessary. Then, once you have found your focus, use some tape to tape your lens so the focus ring doesn't move anymore.

Regarding ISO, keep this setting between 800 and 6400. Start with 800 and then move it around depending on the shots you're getting. There's a certain type of noise that can creep into your photos if the shutter speed is too slow and the ISO value is too low, so you'll need to experiment with this.

Always shoot in RAW mode, so you can adjust your white balance later on in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom. If I had to give you a specific white balance setting to go with, it would be Incandescent.

When taking your photo, be sure to use your camera's 2-second delay feature or a remote shutter. This will minimize camera shake.

When it comes to aperture, be sure to set it to its widest value. So if you're using a 24mm f/2.8 lens like I did last night, set that aperture to f/2.8 to open it up as much as it will go.

Post-Processing: After you take tons of great shots, use Camera Raw or Lightroom to edit them. I think you'll find that the Dehaze and Clarity sliders are your friends. Use them liberally.

If you're going to practice in your backyard, you can make your life easier by setting your camera up inside. Do as much as you can and then go set yourself up with your head lamp out on your lawn or driveway. Take your time, use patience and enjoy yourself.

Please reply to this post with any shots you managed to get so we can discuss them. Also, reply with any trouble or successes you experiences. Thanks!

UPDATE: I went back out last night to capture some better photos. I wanted to take a few nice shots to post here, but after about 15 minutes of snapping away, my battery light began blinking, so I had to stop. These two photos below are an improvement from the one above, but still aren't very good. I kept the ISO at 800 and before I had a chance to experiment with raising it, well, the battery began dying. I'd like to try again the next time the sky is clear. Possibly tonight. By the way, yes, there was a breeze and that's why the trees are all blurry.

One thing I'm running up against is exposure. The images are underexposed. While they look great on the rear LCD screen on the camera, they look pretty bad on my computer. The shots simply aren't exposed enough and that's why I wanted to see what raising the ISO to, say, 1600 and beyond would do. I was also using my 24mm f/2.8 lens. I'd love to pick up something faster, such as a 12mm f/1.8 or larger. That would be the best. Also, having a full frame camera would be even better.

nighttime-stars.jpg

Camera: Canon Rebel T7i
Shutter Speed: 13s
Aperture: f/2.8
ISO: 800
Focal Length: 24mm

stars-sky-night.jpg

Camera: Canon Rebel T7i
Shutter Speed: 13s
Aperture: f/2.8
ISO: 800
Focal Length: 24mm
 
Last edited:

KodyWallice

New member
Last night, I went out during the blue hour for a few photos. I was being eaten by mosquitoes, so I had my experimentation quick. I wanted to see how ISO values would affect my photography while there was still some light in the atmosphere.

I used the same specs as I did for the photos above, but this time, I began with an ISO value of 1600. The result of that was completely overexposed. Then, I reduced the ISO to 800 and then 400 and finally settled on 100, where things went well.

Here's the photo:

blue-hour.jpg

Camera: Canon Rebel T7i
Shutter Speed: 13s
Aperture: f/2.8
ISO: 100
Focal Length: 24mm

So my thinking is that I will have much better luck for my star shots the next time I go out if I raise the ISO to something like 1600 or even higher. I think that will remove some of the black clipping and give me some wiggle room when it comes to editing during post-processing.
 

KodyWallice

New member
By the way, I have another tip for you. If you know where you're going to be photographing earlier on in the day, go out and focus on something during the daylight. That way, you won't have to hunt around in the dark in an effort to get your camera to focus. Once it's focused, you can simply return later on to take your pictures.
 

CampfireJack

New member
I personally prefer Milky Way photography as opposed to general star photography or astrophotography. Basically, I like taking photos of the Milky Way galaxy when it's in view, which many people might not know that it isn't all the time.

Timing is everything when it comes to taking photos of the Milky Way galaxy. It's important to find out when it's going to be visible in your sky at night. To discover this information, you can use two different apps for your phone or tablet. One is called Sun Surveyer and the other is called PhotoPills. Both of these apps are excellent at telling you when the moon will be in your sky. The reason this is important is because the brightness of the moon almost completely washes out the starts. You need no moon and a completely black sky for the best photos. The apps will also tell you when the galactic center will be visible. They're really awesome apps in that they indicate the rise and set times of both of these important entities. So yes, it's not as easy as grabbing your camera and going outside to take some pictures. There is planning involved.

Another critical aspect of astrophotography or galactic photography has to do with choosing the right location in which to photograph. If you're located in an area that puts out a lot of light pollution, you'll need to hop in a car and get out to a remote area that's very dark. The darker, the better. Get out to the countryside where it's pitch black, because if you try to stay in the city, you won't see nearly as many stars as there are.

Finally, I find that while the camera is important (DSLR), the lens is much more important. In order to capture a lot of the sky, you'll need a wide angle lens. Something like 16-35mm if you're using a full frame sensor. Also, you'll need a big aperture. You should be using an f/2.8 aperture or larger. If your aperture is too small, you're going to have a tough time taking these types of photos. A 24mm f/2.8 lens on a full frame camera is perfect.

If you've got a cropped sensor camera, all is not lost. While the larger sensors on full frame cameras absorb a lot more light and can handle higher ISO settings, I've taken a lot of very nice sky and star pictures with cropped sensors. You just need to pay attention to the settings a little more with the cropped sensor.

With any camera, of course, use a tripod, open your aperture up all the way, put your camera on a timer or use a remote shutter button and experiment with your ISO. For cropped sensors, you'll probably need between 1600 and 3200 and on full frame, you might need 6400. Experimentation is the best and it's necessary.

Regarding your shutter speed, the 500 rule is great. Just make sure to do the math if you're using a cropped sensor camera.

Here's how it's going to go for you. You're going to read forums like this one and then go out and try to take some Milky Way or star photos. You'll come back and realize they're not that great. Then, you'll read some more and watch a few videos on the topic. You'll go out again and realize that your photos are about twice as good as the first time. You'll repeat this process until you're taking spectacular images. This is the process of learning, so expect it and good luck.
 
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