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  1. #1
    Senior Member
    Wahugg's Avatar

    Star Photography One on One

    Star Photography One on One
    Hello All!

    I may be new to this forum, but I am not all that new to photography, specifically night time and star photography. I absolutely love the night sky and sharing it with others. So if star hunting is your game, pull up a chair and enjoy the read.

    Before we head into what we’ll need and how to take photos, it’s important to understand one thing. Night time photography is extremely frustrating. More than often, photos will not turn out how you want, and for first few MONTHS you will probably get confused with the settings before everything is strait in your head. We’re pushing the outer limits of cameras and lens as well as editing software. So please don’t get too frustrated with this type of photography, it’ll be worth it all in the end. I promise.

    Here is a quick list on what I recommend to have if star shooting is something you’re going to try. All of them will make life a lot easier in the end, however only a few things are actually required.


    • Any DSLR: Literally any model will do. Almost all pictures in this article were taken with a Nikon D60. However, a better sensor in a higher end camera will yield better initial results. But overall quality will not be hugely different between a lesser camera and a higher end camera after a lot of editing in Lightroom or Photoshop.
    • A lens such as a simple kit lens will work, as this article utilizes the standard Nikon kit lens. However if you have access to a lens with a very low focal length, a low aperture, and a manual focus ring, then go for that one instead.
    • A reliable tripod. A heavier one is preferable because it helps reduce vibrations and is sturdier.

    • Smart Phone with a star, night sky, weather, and light pollution maps. Any android or an iPhone will do
    • Star chart and compass in place of map.
    • A good red colored flashlight to set things up. A head mounted one is great as it free's up both your hands, and the red light doesn’t affect your night vision.
    • A note book to take notes and right down settings to keep track of what works and what doesn’t.
    • A good friend can offer ideas, good conversation, and extra man power in situations. Being alone at one or two A.M. can be dangerous at times, so be careful. I'm not saying all people you might encounter are bad, but I've been in a situation where I would have been in serious trouble if my buddy hadn't come back from the out house.
    • A post editing software like Adobe Light Room can dramatically make your photos stick out.

    So you have a tripod, a camera, and possibly all these other gizmos and gadgets. Great!! But now what? Set it all up and let it rip? Nope! Before you should even think about going out to take night shots, we need to find out what the weather will be like and where a good spot to take photos would be.


    So what kind of weather are we looking for? For starters a nice clear sky is ideal, meaning no clouds or fog should be out. Low humidity is also preferred. Humidity can make the stars look hazy or even cause a soft focus effect which results in a non-vibrant picture. Winter months are most ideal for night time shooting as they offer the longer nights, low humidity, and the skies are usually clear. A great app for both the iPhone and Android is The Weather Channel. It’ll show you cloud cover and the forecast.

    Light Pollution

    Light pollution is probably the hardest thing to overcome when shooting at night. People don’t realize how big of a problem lights can cause in a frame when shooting at night. First, where does light pollution come from? Obviously light sources, but the answer is not detailed enough. Flashlights, headlights, street lights, strobe lights on radio towers, and cities are all types of light pollution. Even the moon is a source of light pollution, and it can often outshine many stars and ruin what would otherwise have been a great shot. Well a couple of those sources such as headlights and radio towers are pretty easy to avoid, but others such as the moon and glowing horizons are much harder to get rid of. Well how do you get rid of light domes? The answer is to travel away from it. Sometimes it only requires a quick 15-20 mile trip in the opposite direction. Other times it could be a much bigger trip of 30 to 60 miles. It is also possible that all of the horizons are polluted by light domes so no matter which way you travel, you still have a glow. If this is the case then I recommend you look at a light pollution map and plan a big trip out to a good location and spend some time there taking photos. A great app for the iPhone that shows light pollution is called “Dark Sky Finder”.

    *Note: The moon makes fewer stars visible, but at the same time it lights up the landscape which can really bring out the natural colors and landscape into you photo. Try to shoot for a time period when the moon isn’t too bright for best results when incorporating landscape.

    This was taken at 0100 facing Columbus, my location being 15 miles away. See what I mean when I said cities throw off light pollution.... You can even see how big of a problem simple car and street lights can be so it is CRUCIAL to get to a place where there is none of this.

    Taking the Shots

    Now that you have found a place without light pollution and where the stars are shining, it is time set up your rig. Make sure the tripod will not move and is on solid ground. Any kind of vibration will most likely make the photo blurry to some degree, and take away from the detail. Also it is very important to make sure that the camera is level.

    Got that? Great! Turn your camera on and move that dial to M for manual mode. This is where all the nitty gritty starts to happen. I will break down what each setting does after the list. I am not familiar with all of the cameras out there so I am just going to post the general settings you will be using to take the shot. It is up to you to read your manual and find out how to put all the settings in.


    -ISO: As HIGH as it can go. In my case Hi 1, which is Extended ISO 3200 on the D60
    -Aperture: As WIDE as it will open. In my case 3.5f
    -Exposure time: 30 seconds
    -Turn OFF Vibration Reduction Systems
    -Turn ON a 2 second time delay
    -Turn ON delay shutter release (not all cameras have this feature)
    -Turn OFF auto focus and focus it manually
    -Make your focal point as SMALL as possible
    -Turn OFF auto white balance (If your shooting in RAW this won't matter, but if you’re using JPEG turn it from auto to florescent; sub-setting 4 for now)

    Got that put in? Great! Now let your camera take a picture. After the first picture, turn and adjust the tripod to a different field of view and repeat. Do this to your heart’s content to see what is out there in the sky. These photos will not be your good photos. They are just the photos you use to find what is out in the night sky for your camera to see. Most likely they are going to be grainy, over exposed, and maybe even washed out. Near the end of this article we'll talk more about taking pictures of quality once you have a shot set up.

    If you are having a hard time finding the milky way or certain stars, a great app for the iPhone is Star Walk. (http://vitotechnology.com/star-walk.html)

    ^Too short of an exposure time---------------------------------------------------------------------

    ^Wrong whitebalance settings and light pollution is present-----------------------------

    ^Too much light pollution and too high of an ISO------------------------
    All photos and material copyrighted © Wallace Huggett

    › See More: Star Photography One on One
    Attached Thumbnails Attached Thumbnails Star Photography One on One-538227_452113574802142_1917916968_n.jpg  

    Last edited by Wahugg; 12-04-2012 at 08:19 PM.
    Thanks/Like Marcel, Mr.Smith, Tami Jo, JRam, JPar, Fork, RiDdLe, Roy1961, wud, skkar_2k2 and 3 others Thanks/liked this post

  2. #2
    Senior Member
    Wahugg's Avatar

    Re: Star Photography One on One

    Star Photography One on One

    ----- ISO refers to how sensitive your sensor will be to light. Normally in the day time we use a lower ISO because there is plenty of light, but this is not the case at night. The bad thing about making the ISO higher is that it makes ALOT more noise present in the picture, but without a high ISO a good night sky picture will not be possible. We'll come back to this noise issue in just a little bit.

    ----- Aperture refers to how big the diaphragm is currently in the lens.The diaphragm roughly limits how much light enters your lens. Since we want to let as much light from the stars in as possible, we open it up all the way. Ideally it will be around 1.8f to 2.8f, but 3.5f is acceptable. Anything less than 3.5f is real hard to work with.

    -Exposure time:
    -----30 seconds may seem like too long to some, and too short to others. Well 30 seconds is what I find works the best most of the time. Sometimes if the stars are exceptionally bright, I will tune it down to 25 or 20 seconds, but never less. These stars are pretty dim having traveled thousands of light years to get to us, so more time never hurt anyone. But if you go above 30 seconds or if you make your focal length longer then 20mm then you might notice the stars streaking across the sky. Some people like this, I do not. To counter act the streaking, simply tune back the
    time a bit.

    -Turn off Vibration Reduction systems:
    ----- Why do this? We don't want vibrations, but the VR system actually can mess up BADLY when it is extremely dark out (just like AF). It will get confused and try to shift the lens to counter act non-existent motion, which it turn causes real life blurs in our picture. So turn that baby off.

    -Turn on a 2 second time delay:
    ----- We do this to help reduce vibrations. By putting the timer on, we give the camera a few seconds to stop any vibrations or movements caused by pushing the shutter button. You’re already waiting 30 seconds, so 2 more aren’t going to hurt.

    -Turn ON delay shutter release
    ----- Shutter delay is just another way to help reduce vibrations in the camera. Normally when you hit the release button, the mirror flips up (the loud click you hear and feel) and the second the camera registers the mirror in the up position it takes a picture. This causes vibrations to some degree. When the delay shutter mode is enabled, the camera waits 3/4th of a second before it starts to record the image. This allows any residual vibrations from the mirror to subside. Just imagine if you threw a baseball at a wall. If your hand was on that same wall you could feel the thunk and vibrations of the baseball hitting the wall. Well if you waited for the baseball to hit the wall, then put your hand on the wall you would feel nothing. Same concept with the camera, but with the mirror assembly hitting the internal stops instead of the baseball hitting the wall.

    -Turn off auto focus and focus it manually:
    ----- It's a well known fact that the AF will not work in the dark. Manually focusing stars can be hard, but there is a simple way to do this. Zoom your lens on the brightest star and focus on that till it's not blurry. Then zoom back out to a focal length equal or less then 20mm. That's all there is to it.

    -Make your focal point as small as possible:
    ----- The longer your focal point, the less time your exposure can be before streaking occurs. Since we are trying to use 30 seconds as our exposure time, we are limited to a 20mm focal length. Also it's nice to add things into your photo by making your focal point nice and small.

    -Turn off auto white balance (If your shooting in RAW this won't matter, but if you’re using JPEG turn it from auto to florescent for now):
    -----If you’re not shooting in RAW then you should. Really! You can change the white balance settings later to ANYTHING you want in Lightroom or any other good photo editing software. This way you can make your picture look as good as possible. But I understand not everyone wants to shoot in RAW. If that's the case I have found florescent to make the best, most natural looking images.

    Read over that all one more time to make sure you have everything strait. Now here is some more stuff!!! Yay!! But this is actually really important.

    ISO VS Exposure time VS Aperture

    The ultimate goal of Astrophotography is to take a picture as fast as possible without compromising the details of the photo. So we want to cram as much light from the stars into the lens as possible to turn the exposure time down. This can be achieved by making the ISO higher, and by opening the Aperture more. **Always remember that the smaller the aperture number, the better it will be for you. This is absolutely no draw back to using a 1.8f over a 2.8f other than getting more light into the camera, which is good! However, there is a huge draw back by increasing the ISO. Doing this makes the camera more sensitive to light, but it also introduces noise.....badly. But at the same time, it allows us to decrease our exposure time, allowing us to save battery and take more photos. However, decreasing the exposure time does not significantly reduce the noise levels.

    Therefore we must find an equilibrium of sorts. The point where the (ISO level) noise is not too much, and the exposure time is not to long all while making sure the camera is getting enough light to make sure the stars show.

    Unfortunately on my D60 I didn't have this luxury of decreasing the exposure time that much. The sensor in the D60 is not the best, and limits me to a real ISO of 1600 and an extended ISO of 3200. In reality I need an ISO of around 4000 to 5000. 1600 ISO does not capture enough of the stars light, and the 3200 was often grainy (since it's not a true 3200) but it let enough light in. Keep in mind this is all with the exposure time at 30 seconds. On your camera it might be different, but this is my experience.

    Well how do we take nice photos?
    Once you find your ideal shot, start to dial back the ISO to an acceptable level of noise. You will not eliminate noise completely no matter what you do, but try to minimize it. Then start to dial back the exposure time till a good picture is produced.

    For example lets say I started with the following settings:
    Exposure time: 30sec
    Aperture: 3.5f

    Using the settings above, my image is way over exposed and grainy. The first thing I would do is drop the ISO, lets say to 4000. The photo looks as if the exposure is just a tad but over, and there is less noise, but I'm still going to drop the ISO further to 3200. Now the picture is too dim and there is still roughly the same amount of noise. ISO 4000 and 3200 yield the same noise in this situation, but since 3200 is too dim, I am going to use ISO 4000. Now that I have my ISO set, I am going to begin to dial back my exposure time until the photo looks perfectly exposed.

    My final Settings may look like this now:
    Exposure Time: 22 seconds
    ISO: 4000
    Aperture: 3.5f

    Hopefully by now you start to see the correlation between ISO and exposure time. If not, then the best way is to go out and shoot on your own. Also keep in mind, editing go a long way with night shots. Also a little bit of luck is needed!

    Once again take a breather and go back over everything. It may be confusing, but I swear once you go out and start changing settings on your own, you will begin to understand how everything ties into everything else.

    Also please keep in mind that this article will change over time as I evolve skill wise and equipment wise. All of the pictures in this article were made with a D60, and I now have a D5100 and a D600 so the rules have changed dramatically which I will incorporate over time.

    If you have any questions please post them, and I will try to answer them

    Keep on shooting!




    All photos and material copyrighted © Wallace Huggett
    Last edited by Wahugg; 12-12-2012 at 08:22 PM.

  3. #3
    Senior Member
    Wahugg's Avatar

    Re: Star Photography One on One

    Reserved for future info

  4. #4
    Senior Member
    Mr.Smith's Avatar

    Re: Star Photography One on One

    This is shouting out to be made STICKY!!

    If at first you dont succeed..... SKY diving is not for you!!

  5. #5
    Senior Member
    JPar's Avatar

    Re: Star Photography One on One

    Awesome tips. Will be trying this once I find a nice, dark field somewhere.

    One tip I'd add in lieu of the 2 second shutter - invest in a remote shutter trigger. You can get one from Amazon for 10 bucks and it's well worth it.

  6. #6
    Senior Member
    Tami Jo's Avatar

    Re: Star Photography One on One

    I send the sticky suggestion!!!! These are really great tips most will want to try.
    “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” -Ansel Adams

    Nikon D750, Grip MB-D16
    Nikon D7000
    AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D;
    AF-S NIKKOR 70-200 2.8 G ED VR Ii
    AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G;
    AF Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8D;
    AF NIKKOR 70-200 f/4
    Tokina AT-X 28-70mm f/2.8 AF
    Zoom-Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5;
    AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR;
    AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR;
    Nikon SB-700 Speedlight

  7. #7
    Senior Member
    triumph's Avatar

    Re: Star Photography One on One

    thank you very much...so helpfull.
    I'll try as soon as possiple..........

  8. #8
    Senior Member
    Mr.Smith's Avatar

    Re: Star Photography One on One

    Star Photography One on One
    O.K So we have a very clear night tonight so of I went..

    Here is what I managed to get, I really really need a wider angle lens as I would love to catch the whole night sky

    But I only just started and only have the 18mm-55mm so comments and tips from these please.

    Exif is identical for all of them except 5 where i dropped the ISO down to 100 just to see what I would get

    Exif data

    Camera Nikon D3100
    Exposure 30
    Aperture f/3.5
    Focal Length 18 mm
    ISO Speed 400
    Exposure Bias 0 EV
    Flash No Flash


    Stars-1 by Mr K.Smith, on Flickr

    Stars-2 by Mr K.Smith, on Flickr

    Stars-3 by Mr K.Smith, on Flickr

    Stars-4 by Mr K.Smith, on Flickr

    Stars-5 by Mr K.Smith, on Flickr
    Thanks/Like Eye-level, RiDdLe, Moab Man, FastGlass Thanks/liked this post
    If at first you dont succeed..... SKY diving is not for you!!

  9. #9
    Senior Member
    Wahugg's Avatar

    Re: Star Photography One on One

    Those are some great shots! Especially that that ISO. Before, on my D60 I would have to be at ISO 1600 to attempt to get photos with stars that bright. I just picked up a D5100 the other day and after seeing your photos I am extreamly anxious for a clear night to test the sensor out.

    As a tip, try a higher iso, say 1600 to try to get some of the "deep" stars (ie the milky way and nebulas). The noise will be much higher, but a picture will be much ascetically pleasing with a different variety of stars in the photo. Another thing too do is include the horizon

    But as far as the tech stuff goes good job!

    I'll go a bit more into deatil when I get to a computer

    I came, I saw... Now can I just go and actually "do"?

  10. #10
    Senior Member
    Mr.Smith's Avatar

    Re: Star Photography One on One

    Star Photography One on One
    Thanks for the tips will try those out another night, as I said I need a wider angle lens(Please be good to me Santa) I cant zoom out enough at the moment.

    Managed to snap the Dipper(plough) in the sky tonight though

    dipper-1 by Mr K.Smith, on Flickr

    30sec @ f/3.5 18mm ISO 800

    dipper-2 by Mr K.Smith, on Flickr

    15sec @ f/4 24mm ISO 1600

    Its a matter of just playing at the moment to see whats best for when i do get that lens
    Thanks/Like Scott Murray, Jonathan, FastGlass Thanks/liked this post
    If at first you dont succeed..... SKY diving is not for you!!

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