Starry skies: five tips for capturing the night sky
Standing beneath night skies and gazing up at the stars is a truly magical experience. And now, thanks to advances in camera technology, it has become easier than ever for you to get out there and take some amazing photos. Here are our top tips for the best ways to capture the beauty of the starry skies.
1. Location, location, location
To get the best shots, you’ll need to head out into nature and away from any light pollution. City lights will overpower stars and so will a full or even half-moon. There are some very well-known places in the world where you can take incredible shots of the Milky Way (such as Death Valley in Arizona), but just by driving outside your local town you should be able to find a spot free from artificial light. Why not use Blue Marble’s handy tool to help find the darkest location in your area?
2. Check the weather forecast
Before you go out to shoot, don’t forget to check the weather as you’ll need a clear night sky to get great star shots. However, partial cloud cover can add atmosphere to your photos of the night sky, so be creative and use it to your advantage. If the clouds are relatively still, you’ll have fewer problems with them looking blurry in shots where you’re using a long exposure. As with all long exposures, keeping the camera stable is crucial to avoid unwanted light trails or blur. Use a tripod to capture crisp, clear images of starry skies and watch out for wind which can cause clouds to move and spoil your shot.
3. Try different settings
To shoot starry skies, you’ll need to take control of your camera, so change the mode to Manual and try out some of the different settings detailed below.
Focus: Focus your lens to infinity. You can do this manually by flicking the switch on the lens to manual focus. Then, use the distance indicator (if your lens has one) or look through the viewfinder and turn the focus ring until something in the far distance is sharp. Once the lens is focused beyond six metres, its hyper-focal distance will project to infinity and your stars will be sharp.
Aperture: If you want the stars to appear as dots and not as trails you will need to use a wider aperture setting. This will allow you to let as much light as possible into the camera while keeping the exposure time relatively short. Remember, a wide aperture will result in a shallow depth of field, meaning that anything in the immediate foreground will be out of focus.
Shutter speed: Remember, stars are always twinkling. To capture photographs of stars or the Milky Way as static as possible, set your shutter speed to a maximum of 20 seconds. Extending your shutter speed longer than this will result in star trails – if you’re keen to challenge yourself with capturing the stars in motion, read on further!
ISO: The third factor affecting the exposure of your photos is your ISO setting. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive your sensor will be to the light entering through the aperture. Once you are happy with your aperture and shutter speed settings for the effect you are trying to achieve, start experimenting with your ISO settings.
Start at ISO 1600 then work out (by reviewing your images) if your camera has enough light from your aperture setting and exposure time to capture the images you want. You can then adjust your ISO level upwards (to 3200 or as much as your camera will go) to see how this affects your results.
4. Create a composition
Skies filled with pinpricks of stars are one of the most striking things you can photograph. However, you might want to consider including other elements to frame your shots to bring more interest to your image – such as a building, mountains, landscape features or a reflective lake. Sometimes stars alone can lack perspective or personality so always look for something unique that you can capture.
5. Capture star trails
Star trails can look very dramatic and intriguing. You'll need plenty of time and patience, a tripod and a remote shutter control. The effect is caused by the earth's rotation - the stars stay in the same place!
Capturing these fantastic lines of light is a challenge but one that can produce stunning results. First, you need to locate the North Pole. You can do this using one of the many star chart apps available for your smartphone. Shooting The North Pole as the focal point of your photo and using a long exposure will result in the circular pattern around a central location, as seen in the accompanying image.
Stars don't give off much light, so use a high ISO (800, 1600 or higher) to capture their movement. Watch out and experiment before attempting a long exposure as the higher the ISO, the more likely you’ll encounter ‘noise’ in your image.
The maximum shutter speed available on many cameras is 30 seconds, so for a longer exposure, use the bulb exposure setting in manual mode. This allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you want to simply by pressing it to open or close. Set your focus to infinity. Experiment and review your shots before trying a longer exposure of around 30 minutes. Then review your shot again. It may take a few tries – and a few patient nights – before you get the rewarding results you want.
Share your starry shots
Once you’ve captured those beautiful starry skies, be sure to share your images on our Gallery. Good luck!