OK…not the actual “shooting stars” but photographing stars. I’ve had the opportunity the past couple of months to photograph stars late at night and into the wee morning hours. It’s been a lot of fun as well as being challenging. I’ve been all over Oregon on my own and leading workshops and have seen the full gamut of light conditions. Everything from near daylight with a full moon to complete darkness.
The key regardless of the moon phase is to find a place far away from light pollution. You will not see the Milky Way (or many other stars) if there are city lights glowing in the night sky.
So I thought I’d give you some examples in these various light conditions and talk a little bit about camera settings, compositions, and post processing.
Before I get to the images, here are some general guidelines for photographing stars.
- A sturdy tripod is essential. You’ll be using long exposures so hand held is out of the question.
- Shoot RAW. You’ll have much more control and leeway in post process.
- Set your lens/camera to manual focus. Auto-focus will be difficult (If not impossible) in the dark. I found that turning the focus ring to infinity and backing off a bit is the best setting. Take test shots to get focus right. You’ll want the stars as sharp as possible. Once your focus is set, leave it there.
- I like to shoot in Manual mode because I have full control over all settings.
- The most important exposure setting is shutter speed. Anything over 25 seconds will result in noticeable “streaks” in the stars. Stars look better as points of light. So aim for shutter speeds of 25 seconds or less (you’ll most like be in the range of 5-25 seconds depending on light conditions).
- For aperture, use you widest aperture (lowest f-number) and leave it there.
- ISO values will be in the range of 800-6400 (again, depending on light conditions). Of course lower ISO result in less noise (more on noise later).
- Judging exposure is the most difficult part. Many times you’ll be in complete darkness. So a headlight comes in very handy to see what you’re doing with the camera. Just be sure to turn it off when you’re shooting and always be respectful of fellow photographers if you’re shooting with others.
- Judging your exposure will be a big challenge. Since you’re in the dark your LCDs will be bright. Turn down the brightness of your LCD review to something less than 50%. Histograms are nearly worthless. There will be a lot of information to the far left and a little to the right (this will be the stars). My advice is to take sever shots at various exposure levels (for a given setting I like to adjust exposure using ISO).
- If you start shooting after sunset, light conditions from the setting sun will change. Therefore you’ll have to adjust your exposure settings to compensate. Full darkness doesn’t start until about 1 hour after sunset and complete darkness doesn’t happen until 2 or more hours after sunset. So be prepared to stay up late (heck…you may want to stay up all night…sleep can wait).
- Use a remote shutter release to avoid unnecessary camera shake. You can use a self timer if you don’t have a remote release.
- Using mirror lockup can also help reduce shake.
- I don’t use in-camera noise reduction (high ISO or long exposure). This will result in twice the amount of time required to process your images and you’ll be forced to wait after taking each shot. Noise reduction is software driven and I would rather control it in Lightroom.
- If you shoot RAW, white balance is not a critical setting since you can easily adjust it in post processing. But I like to see the right colors on my LCD review. So I set my white balance to manual and set it to 3000 – 4000K.
- Shooting just the stars is boring in my opinion. So I like to have something recognizable in the frame. This can be just about anything whether it is illuminated or in silhouette.
- For lenses, wide fast lenses are the best choice. The Milky Way is huge, so you’ll want to get as much of it in the frame as possible…shoot wide. That being said, I also encourage people to shoot tighter crops for different effects. Faster lenses (i.e., f/2.8 or faster) allow you to use wider apertures and therefore lower ISO values.
- For post processing, I use Lightroom 5. I sometimes have to adjust exposure. I like to bump up highlights and whites a bit to bring out the stars and sometimes add more blacks to darken the skies. I generally add some clarity and vibrance as well. I may add a little sharpening and noise reduction depending on the image.
Discover the Light Photography has a workshop later this year focusing on star photography. Click here to find out more.
Now for the sample images…
Lets start with an image that was shot with a brilliant and very bright full moon on top of the McKenzie pass (one of my favorite places for stars).
Since the moon was full and providing near daylight conditions, I was able to shoot at relatively low ISO and fairly short shutter speeds. The interesting thing about shooting with a full moon is that you get daylight-like details but with stars in the sky. Here the story was the portal created by the framing of the landscape from one of the rock windows inside the Dee Wright Observatory.
- Canon EOS-1D X
- Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L Tilt-Shift
- Manual mode
- 7/22/2013 @ 12:16 AM
Here’s one from a workshop I helped lead near Sisters Oregon. There was a half moon rising from the east (to the left of this image). This provided some light on the mountains. We also found a water feature that gave us star reflections.
- Canon EOS-1D X
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L
- Manual mode
- 8/23/2013 @ 8:40 PM
Here’s an image taken from an abandoned school house on Tygh Ridge in Central Oregon. Light painting was used on the structure to show the colors and textures on it. Light was painted for about 4 seconds and it’s best to use an incandescent light source for a warmer light (or use colored gels over the light. Any more would have resulted in over-exposure on the building. Here there was no moon. I got down low to get the reflections of the stars in the water.
- Canon EOS 5D Mark II
- Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM
- Manual mode
- 7/14/2013 @ 1:07 AM
The glow in the distance was famers working late in the night. Here the Milky Way was the main feature and I wanted it tp lead down to the school house as if the stars emanated from the building itself.
The last example was taken at the same schoolhouse but this time with a half moon right over head providing a lot of light.
- Canon EOS-5D Mark II
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.4
- Manual mode
- 9/13/2013 @ 10:19 PM
This image was converted to B/W in Lightroom. I used a 50mm lens to get a tighter crop. Since the moon was bright, stars were not the story. The moon lit school house was the story. I use the fence rails as leading elements.
I sincerely hope you enjoyed this writeup and gained something from it. Thanks for visiting!