7 tips for taking great pictures of stars in the night sky

Stargazing reinforces the wonder of our small size in the Universe. Combining science and meditation, watching the night sky is fascinating. Drawn to dark sky parks and communities on my travels, capturing beautiful images of the night sky is always an activity I like to include.

To achieve some success with star photography, you need to plan and practice. Here are some tools and recipes for taking photos with a cell phone and DSLR/mirrorless camera to achieve your goals. Many are inexpensive and easy to implement.

Milky Way with rocks and bushes in the foreground (Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price)

1. Find a really dark sky

The best tip for taking great photos of stars is to visit a Dark sky place where light pollution is reduced. There are 195 certified dark sky locations in the world.

2. Invest in this non-tradable gear

A tripod is essential for stabilizing your camera, whether it’s a DLSR/Mirrorless or a cell phone. It is impossible to hold either camera for the long exposures required for star photography. It would be better to reduce camera shake when pointing your camera lens to the sky.

3. Manage your HDR and flash

Disable flash and HDR (high dynamic range) on your smartphone. The flash is ineffective because the subject is not close enough. HDR tends to slow down your camera speed. Disabling it will improve performance.

Milky Way photographed at Joshua Tree National Park.
Milky Way photographed at Joshua Tree National Park; Joshua trees in the foreground (Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price)

4. Use optical rather than digital zoom

Only use your mobile phone’s optical zoom range, as it performs lens adjustment like a real zoom lens and will provide better quality images. Avoid digital zoom as it relies on in-camera image processing, enlarging pixels and reducing image quality and resolution.

5. Carry an extra battery

Fully charge your cell phone before you start star photography. An external backup battery will ensure you have enough power to complete the entire series of photographs. Tie it at the beginning of the photo shoot.

A new, fully charged battery will allow you to capture enough images for a spectacular set of star trails from your DSLR/Mirrorless. You will not change the battery during the capture process.

Several apps offered in Google Play (Android) and App Store (iPhone) will definitely help your star photography.

You need to use an app to control shutter speed on smartphones. You’ll capture multiple photos in a short time to create a long exposure effect. Popular apps for IOS include Slow shutter camera and Medium Pro Camera. The options for Android are FV-5 Camera and night camera.

Program an intervalometer (cable shutter) connected to a DSLR/mirrorless camera to get the right combination of exposures.

NightCap Camera

NightCap Camera is a night and low-light photography app for iPhone. It uses artificial intelligence to make photography of stars, star trails, the ISS (International Space Station), and meteors more accessible.

The thing to remember is that the darker it gets, the slower it gets. And no camera can work without light. Light Boost is available but still may not provide the results you are looking for.

Photopills

PhotoPills is a robust personal assistant in all photographic disciplines. It provides detailed information for most of your questions when planning and shooting the Sun, Moon, Milky Way, etc. Augmented reality helps you find the pole star, celestial equator, depth of field and field of view.

Add essential information such as sunrise, sunset, twilight, golden hour, blue hour, moonrise, moonset, supermoon dates and calendar lunar, which are often used details.

Use it as a scouting tool to plan your photo shoots. You will know when to arrive and will benefit from assistance with the composition before the session.

Calculations for time-lapse, long exposure, star trails, tracking stars and hyperfocal distances are all part of the package.

Pro tip: Go to the PhotoPills website and download the user guide to get the most out of this program.

Sky View

SkyView (for iOS and android) is an easy-to-use augmented reality app. It is intuitive and a great tool for identifying planets, constellations and stars in the day or night sky.

According to CNET, “If you’ve ever wanted to know what you’re looking at in the night sky, this app is the perfect astronomer’s companion.”

Point your device skyward to identify constellations, galaxies, stars, planets and satellites at your location.

Great features let you set alerts for upcoming celestial events, and there’s a night mode that preserves your night vision with red or green night mode filters. Wi-Fi is not required and it does not require GPS or data signal to function, which is essential for Dark Sky Places with little or no internet connection.

Post-processing tools

You need to process the star trail and Milky Way images after capture. In my experience, the best tools for post-processing are Adobe Photoshop Where Adobe Photoshop Lightroom on your computer.

Milky Way with rocks and bushes in the foreground.
Milky Way with rocks and bushes in the foreground (Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price)

7. Follow these “recipes”

If you want to try your hand at photographing the stars, here are some recipes to get you started. All exposure settings are approximate for DSLR/mirrorless cameras. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Pro tips: Use a red headlamp or flashlight when traveling after dark. It takes 20-30 minutes for our eyes to adjust to the dark. Also, if you park near your photo location, be sure to turn off all of the vehicle’s interior lights so they don’t come on when you open the doors, spoiling your precious night vision. for several minutes.

Milky Way Recipe: No Moon

  • f/2.8
  • 8-30 second exposure
  • ISO 3200-6400
  • 3200K white balance

Full moon

  • f/5.6
  • 1-2 second exposure
  • ISO400

Rule of 500

  • Wide open lens (e.g. f/2.8)
  • 500 divided by focal length = longest acceptable exposure of stars without streaks due to Earth’s rotation
A photograph of star trails with rocks in the foreground.
A photograph of star trails with rocks in the foreground (Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price)

Star Trails Recipe

Star trail photography can be an all-night event. Scout your location during daylight hours. Find an interesting foreground to include in your composition. Configure everything except your camera. Count the number of steps between your camp/parking spot and your installation. It will be easier to keep your bearings when walking after dark.

Pro tip: Use an activated ring light attached to your tripod so you and anyone else nearby can see your setup.

The blue star trails behind a Joshua tree.
A blue star trails behind a Joshua tree (Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price)

Star Trails Camera Settings

  • BULB shutter speed
  • f/4.0
  • ISO400
  • 4000K white balance

Star Trails Intervalometer Settings (Electronic Cable Release)

  • Delay 00 00 00 (Delay before shutter release = no delay)
  • Long 00 04 00 (Exposure time = 4 minutes)
  • Interval 00 00 01 (Interval between exposures = 1 second)
  • N 0-399 (Number of shots, 0 = no finite quantity)
  • On/off button to start, NOT the large remote shutter button

Wait a second between exposures (so the sensor doesn’t overheat and pixelate your images). Longer than this will show gaps between each shot.

Your DSLR/mirrorless camera will capture between 18 and 45 exposures. The minimum desired total exposure time is 1.5 hours, or when your battery is depleted. I get several hours from a new battery.

Pro tips: Buy a new battery and fully charge it for that DSLR/mirrorless adventure. You will only use one per night during this process. Locate the North Star and use it to anchor your star trails. The pole star does not move because it is very close to the north celestial pole of the Earth.

White balance

  • Full moon – 5200 K (daylight)
  • Partial Moon – 4500K
  • No Moon – 4000K (Tungsten/Incandescent)

Pro tips: Be sure to remove the lens cap before starting the series of exposures. Test once or twice before launch. Head to bed and tour your facility in the morning.

Want to learn more about stargazing and the night sky? To consider

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