How to: Star photography / by Gustav Thuesen

Stars are amazing. Beautiful light sparkles across the dark sky. Chances are that you have seen some stunning star photos. Camera sensors can pick up a lot of light when set to shoot a long exposure. This means more stars. It is one of the few things where the camera is superior to the human eye. But how do you capture the magnificent night sky? Here is my process. 

1. Preparation
Before heading out in the night it can be a good idea to prepare from home. I use a few apps and websites which helps me know where and when the stars are at their best.
First step is of course to check the weather. A little small clouds is fine - especially when just training.
Next step is to check the moon phase I use this website. No moon is preferable. The problem is that it only happens once a month and that should line up with the weather as well. So the chances are small. So check out when the moon rises and shoot before that. To check that I use this web app. Last thing to check before heading into the night is where the stars are. The most magnificent sight is definitely the milky way. A little light pollution can make it invisible to the naked eye. To find the less light polluted spots I use this site. To find out where the milky way will be the Stellarium app comes in handy. It is free and does the job nicely.
In the end you can also just go out and hope some magic will happen - you will never come home disappointed, I promise.   

2. Gear
To make a great star shot a little gear is necessary. You will need: 

  • A camera that you can set manually.
  • A tripod.
  • A headlamp (nice to have).

That is all. 

3. Shoot
Your camera settings are important. Different cameras and focal lengths will need different settings due to the rule of 500 (or or whatever number you stick to). Stars are a moving subject so if the shutter speed is too slow you will get light trails which will make the stars look blurry. PetaPixel wrote a good article covering this so I wont get too much into this. Generally rule the rule is: 500 / focal length = max shutter speed. It will usually end up around 15-25 seconds. Your ISO should be as high as possible before your photos turn into a grainy madness. Around 1600-3200 is pretty standard. Aperture should be wide open. When pressing the shutter the next 20 seconds will fell like an eternity. When it is done it is like opening a present. You will be starstruck (ok, that was cheesy).  

4. The creative side of things
Now you know the technical - but no one teaches the creative.
What I like to do is to shoot up a steep slope and silhouette whatever is on the “ridgeline”. This gives perspective. Furthermore a person can make the photo more relatable as the viewer can relate to how it must be to stand there watching the beautiful sky. This evokes a feeling rather than just a pretty photo to look at. If you add a real living person make sure they stand dead still or else they will just be a blurry mess due to the long exposure.  

Now get out and get creative. Good gear is cheap these days and you dont need a lot to get started. So pack your bag and head out in the night and get your stargazing on. I will do a separate post on how to edit star photos - so follow along.
See you out there!