Tips for photographing the night sky

Mt. Baker Milky Way Vertical 2.jpg

On July 13th, TJ Simon and myself will be leading a Star Photography Workshop around the Seattle area. It all depends on the weather where the workshop will take place. Our options are Artist Point, Haller Pass, Mt. Rainier, and a few others.

I get questions every now and then about how I photograph the stars and Milky Way Galaxy. Using these tips, anyone with a DSLR camera can take the same photos as the professionals.

Sturdy Tripod-The first thing you will need is a sturdy tripod. The exposures need to be long and hand holding the camera is not an option. The tripod I use is the MeFoto Globetrotter carbon fiber. 

Remote Shutter Release-Avoiding camera shake is important and using a remote shutter release will prevent the shake. There are many styles so find one that works for you.

Wide Angle Lens-14mm or 16mm are great lenses for photographing the stars but even the kit lenses will work just fine. I use the Rokinon 14mm f2.8 or the Canon 16-35 f4. I went with the f4 due to price and it is sharper than the f2.8 v2. The new f2.8 v3 is suppose to be better but it is also $1900 and the f4 is only $999.

Once you the tripod, lens, and shutter release, now you need to work on camera settings and lenses. Any lens will work for shooting the stars. The best ones have a wide aperture like f2.8 or f1.4. If you only have an f4 or f5.6 lens, increasing your ISO or shutter speed will be required. Once the lens is set to it's widest aperture, set your focus to infinity. Many lenses have an infinity mark to help with focus. If your lens does not have this, either focus during the day and tape the focus ring or shine a bright light on a subject about 20 feet away and set your focus on that subject.

Now that you have the focus set and your lens set to the widest aperture, setting the shutter speed is the next step. There is a rule for photographing the stars to prevent trails. This rule is the "500 Rule". Divide 500 by the focal length of your lens. For instance, If I'm using the Rokinon 14mm, the shutter speed would be 500/14=35.7. This means I could keep the shutter open for 35 seconds before the stars begin to have trails. A 50mm lens would have a shutter speed of 10 seconds. If the camera you are using is a crop sensor, you must take the crop factor into account for the calculation.

ISO for astro or star photography is usually set high. I usually start at 3200 or 6400. That will usually let in enough light to see the stars and milky way galaxy on the back of the screen. With the 14mm lens, and ISO set to 6400, a shutter speed of around 15 seconds will let in enough light and prevent the stars from having trails. This way I don't have to leave the shutter open for 35 seconds.

Now you are all set to take photos of the Milky Way Galaxy and the stars. Set the camera to continuous shooting, lock the shutter release, sit back and let the camera do the work. Once you have around 20 photos go ahead and change the composition. If you want star trails, take a couple hundred photos unless you want to figure out the calculations for 1 shot that has long star trails but that seems like a lot of work while trying to stay up late to photograph the Milky Way Galaxy.

Check out my gallery of Milky Way photography These photos were taken from various location around Seattle like Artist Point, Sun Top Lookout, and other mountains around in the Cascades.

Now that you have the basics on how to photograph the night sky, get out and try photographing the stars and Milky Way Galaxy.

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