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How to Take Incredible Star Photos like NASA

Written by Kobus on January 11, 2013

Milky way photo taken in Peru

You do not need to work for NASA or have a fancy telescope to take beautiful photos of the night sky. All you need is a clear evening, a decent camera, tripod, some warm clothes and something to drink.

Check the weather forecast in your area and don't forget to see when the next meteor shower is. The further away from civilization the better. Light from cities and even little towns has the potential to spoil beautiful photos.

 

The Basic Equipment

Camera

Olympus Zx 1Most SLR cameras and high-end point-and-shoot cameras are capable of taking decent photos of the stars. Be sure your camera has a manual setting so you can control the exposure. You'll need the following:

  • F/stop that can be set f/2.8 or less. If the f/stop cannot go this low you will need to compensate by increasing the ISO.
  • ISO that can be set to at least 3000.
  • The ability to set the shutter speed. For a starry sky you will need between 10 and 30 seconds. See the rule of 600 below.
  • Self-timer so the camera doesn't record the shake when you press the button.
  • Tripod (optional) to position the camera. Alternately a good flat sturdy surface will work.

The Basic Setup

Find a quiet remote spot where no one will drive by and no street lights will affect the photo, even headlamps can have negative effects. If you have a campfire don't make it next to the camera. The fire will light up the surroundings and can cause light pollution.

Set the camera on a tripod or a sturdy surface. A small shake or wobble of the camera will turn the perfect little dots of the stars turn into little squiggly lines or blurry dots. The delay of the self-timer will give the camera time to settle before the shutter opens, thus eliminating camera shake. Cable releases can also be used, but are not always available for point and shoot cameras.

Set your camera to manual and turn the ISO up as high as you can to take a few short test shots. Do this to frame the photo, find light pollution and potential objects that create interest. If there is a halo on the horizon there is light pollution, sometimes this is unavoidable.

stars light polution

Don't be afraid to add objects in the frame to make the photo a little more interesting and add scale. You can include the trees and the landscape. Clouds, the Milky Way or a meteor shower can make a good shot great. Reposition the camera and take some test shots until you are happy with the composition.

stars test photo

The Rule of 600

The rule says that if you want a photo where the stars are not noticeably streaking across the photo you need to divide the focal length of your lens into the number 600. That means if you have a 50mm lens you should be able to take a 12 second exposure and have the stars appears as little pinholes. (600 / 50 = 12) If you have a point-and-shoot camera you may need to look up th mm rating for you lens online. Unfortunately most focal lengths are now measured in Xs, and they mean pretty much nothing.

Here are the settings for the photo at the top of this page: using an Olympus XZ1 point-and-shoot camera at f/1.8, ISO 2500, shutter speed of 30 seconds. My lens is at its widest angle has a focal length of 28mm.

Photo Editing

Some photos might require a little touch up work. Use a photo editing program like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Elements or iPhoto for Mac to crop and /or change the levels of the photo and adjust the colors to look more natural.

Open the photo you want to correct or crop in your editing program, in my case Adobe Photoshop. Open the levels panel by going to Windows > Layers or using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + L on a PC or Cmd + L on a Mac

photo of stars editing in Photoshop - before

If the image appears to have a red glow select red from the channel drop down menu. Then move the left slider until the red starts to lessen. Don't be afraid to mess with the sliders. You can always undo.

photo of stars editing in Photoshop - Manual

Alternatively, in the same levels panel, you can select the black eyedropper tool and click on a part of the night sky that you want to be black. Zoom in as far as possible before clicking the eyedropper. This method gives mixed results. If it doesn't look right, undo and try again.

photo of stars editing in Photoshop - auto

And voila your photo is now ready to send to all your family and friends.

Questions, feedback, great photos to share? Leave a comment below.

Comments  

 
Dick and Charlotte
#3 Dick and Charlotte 2013-01-17 16:33
Hola you guys,

Way too late for a comment, but I have been reading your website and the stories with pleasure. We are the Dutch couple with the 4Runner and we have met eachother in San Pedro de Atacama. We are currently in Argentina on our way south for the last month of our trip (with the car). We have already sold our car to another traveler who will start her journey from Temuco Chili on february 14th. But first route 40 to the south of Argentina and after that via the lakes of Chile back up. Looking forward to that and will definately use your website for the tips and trics.
I think, by reading your stories that you guys are still having fun, keep up with that!!

We want to wish you all the best, safe travels and keep writing those stories on your great website.

Chau and hasta luego
 
 
John
#2 John 2013-01-16 04:02
Great post, but unfortunately my rather expensive point-and-shoot camera wont work in this case. I can either expose 15" with ISO100 or 1" with ISO3200, but both settings are not good enough to capture the stars well.
 
 
Allison
#1 Allison 2013-01-13 02:12
Can't wait to take some starry photos. Thanks for the how to!
 

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