Photographing stars is easier than it looks. Yes, it gets complicated and expensive very fast the further you get into it. But, if you are just looking to get a few good photos of the night sky or of the Milky Way with a sea of stars, it’s fairly easy to figure out and takes relatively little equipment. I apologize in advance if this leads to an addiction to astrophotography (it is a lot of fun!), but here is a guide to getting started.
Starry sky near Charlottesville, Virginia
You will want a DSLR that will allow you to control the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The newer the better, because the newest ones tend to have lower noise at high ISO.
2. Wide-angle lens
The sky is huge! The wider the better to see more stars or to get the entire Milky Way in your frame and to include a foreground frame of reference. Somewhere in the 14mm to 35mm range will be best.
3. Intervalometer or some other way of making long exposures.
Most cameras will allow you to set your shutter speed as long as 30 seconds, so an intervalometer is really optional, but if you are in a spot where you could use more time or want to capture star trails, you need something to tell the camera to hold the shutter open longer.
Since stars are relatively dim against the night sky, and shutter speeds have to be long, you need to stabilize your camera. Buy the sturdiest tripod you can afford.
You will most likely be photographing the night sky in the dark. To see what you are doing with your camera settings, a flashlight is helpful. It is also helpful if you are trying to focus on a foreground object in the dark.
When you are planning to shoot, it is helpful to find a spot that is dark. This usually means far away from cities, where light pollution is at a minimum and on a day where the sky is clear and free of clouds, fog or pollution. There are a few resources out there to help you decide where and when to photograph the night sky, like Dark Sky Finder or ClearDarkSky.
If you don’t live near a very dark place, you can still get photographs of stars! There just won’t be as many visible.
Settings – exposure, focus, RAW, shutter speed
Setting your camera is pretty simple.
First, make sure you are shooting in RAW. This will help you later to pull out detail.
Next, set your aperture as wide as it will go. This will allow you to capture as much of the starlight as possible. Your shutter speed will typically be between 30 and 60 seconds. This is long enough that the camera can gather as much light as possible in your exposure, but short enough that you won’t see the stars moving—as they do, quicker than you would think. Use your ISO to get the exposure just right. I like to start at 1600, and increase if the sky is too dark, decrease if the sky is too light.
Lastly, make sure you have a sharp focus. If you have a live view mode, this can be very helpful.
Post production – White balance, contrast, clarity
After I have taken my photos, I bring them into Lightroom. There are lots of post-processing tips and tricks, but the main things that make the biggest difference are the white balance, contrast, and clarity. Auto white balance usually leaves your stars looking kind of orange-y. Adjust so they look more neutral or blue. Then, crank up your contrast and clarity individually to the point that the stars really start to pop and take on more definition against the sky.
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