A Guide to Star Photography

Copyright Auyeung Photography 2015

‘How do I take pictures of the stars’ is one question I get asked frequently, and this does not surprise me as I really enjoy taking images in the middle of the night. One of the most fascinating things about taking star pictures is how drastically the landscape can look compared to the daytime. For those interested in taking great star photos, here are my tips to achieving those goals.

Copyright Auyeung Photography 2015
This image was taken on a clear evening at Fishermen’s Point in Lincoln National Park and the clarity of the sky was evident by the ability to capture the Milky Way so vividly. To give a stronger foreground element, I had the camera prepositioned so that my partner could hit the shutter and illuminate me with a headlight for me.

Three key instruments

  • Tripod – The paramount tool to achieve a sharp image at slow shutter speed (20 to 30 seconds) as it would be impossible otherwise.
  • Digital camera with manual function – The camera cannot determine the correct exposure in such a dark condition and it would be quicker to use a predetermined setting once it was figured out.
  • Wide angle lens – The only way to fit in the vast sky is with a wide angle lens so I wouldn’t use anything wider than 35 mm.

Ideal Environment

The ideal environment for taking star photos is a clear night sky with as little light pollution as possible; this may mean driving 30 minutes away from the city or a roadtrip into the desert. Why is this important? Stars are a weak light source and isolating it becomes exceedingly difficult with light pollution from cities. It’s the same reason that astrological telescopes are located either high up on the mountains or in the desert.

Copyright Auyeung Photography 2015
This image was captured from our free camping site at Two People’s Bay just 20 km outside of Albany, Western Australia. In addition to waiting for most of the clouds to clear, I used a headlamp to highlight some of the trees and the beach to help give a better perspective of the location to the viewer.

Camera Setting

For the general camera setting, the aperture should be at the widest possible, with a shutter speed between 20-30 seconds, and the lowest possible ISO after setting the previous two settings. This setting will help balance the quality of the photo with the best resolution of the stars in the picture. With my setup I get the optimal result using a shutter speed of 25 seconds, ISO at 2200, and aperture of 2.8 (Nikon D7000 camera and a Tokina 11-16 mm lens).

Copyright Auyeung Photography 2015
This image was made at Spear Creek just outside of Port Augusta near the start of the South Australian Flinder’s Ranges. On a clear night and using large gum trees in foreground, a passing car on a dirt road provided enough fill light to illuminate the trees while the ranges in the background was lit up by a setting moon directly behind the camera.

Other Considerations

Additionally, applying the basic landscape composition rules, such as strong foreground element and the rule of thirds can make an average image into a great one. One way to do this is to include subjects in the foreground such as a person, trees, or mountains and using an additional light source to illuminate it such as a flashlight or a headlamp. Avoid shooting into the moon as this light source can overpower the star’s weak glow. Finally, try shooting in the direction of the Milky Way as this cluster of stars is the brightest in the sky, and will provide a stronger point of interest in the photo.

So on the next clear night get outside and take some pictures of our galaxy and beyond!

Photographs by Auyeung Photography.