Stargazing reinforces the wonder of how small we are in the Universe. Combining science and meditation, viewing the night sky is mesmerizing. Drawn to Dark Sky Parks and Communities in my travels, capturing gorgeous pictures of the night sky is always an activity that I like to include.
To achieve some measure of success with star photography, you must plan and practice. The following are some tools and recipes for cell phone and DSLR/Mirrorless camera photos to accomplish your goals. Many are low-cost and easy to implement.
1. Find A Truly Dark Sky
The best advice for taking gorgeous pictures of stars is to visit a Dark Sky location where light pollution is reduced. There are 195 certified Dark Sky Places in the world.
2. Invest In This Non-Negotiable Piece Of Equipment
A tripod is essential to stabilize your camera, whether a DLSR/Mirrorless or cell phone. It is impossible to handhold either device for the long exposures required for star photography. It would be best to reduce camera shake when pointing your camera lens to the sky.
3. Manage Your HDR And Flash
Turn off flash and HDR (high dynamic range) on your smartphone. Flash is ineffective because the subject isn’t close enough. HDR tends to slow down your camera’s speed. Turning it off will improve performance.
4. Use Optical Zoom Rather Than Digital
Use only the optical zoom range on your cell phone because it makes a lens adjustment like an actual zoom lens and will deliver better quality images. Avoid digital zoom because it relies on in-camera image processing, enlarging the pixels, and reducing image quality and resolution.
5. Pack Extra Battery Power
Fully charge your cell phone before starting star photography. An external backup battery will ensure that you have enough power to complete the entire series of photographs. Attach it at the beginning of the photo session.
A new battery, fully charged, will allow you to capture enough images for a spectacular set of star trails from your DSLR/Mirrorless. You won’t change the battery during the capture process.
6. Find The Right Tools
Several apps offered in Google Play (Android) and the App Store (iPhone) will undoubtedly help your star photography.
You must 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 Cam and Average Camera Pro. Options for Android are Camera FV-5 and Night Camera.
Program an intervalometer (cable release) connected to a DSLR/Mirrorless camera to obtain the right combination of exposures.
NightCap Camera is a low-light and night photography app for iPhone. It uses Artificial Intelligence to make photographing stars, star trails, 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 perform without light. Light Boost is available but may still not deliver the results you are seeking.
PhotoPills is a robust personal assistant in all photographic disciplines. It provides in-depth information for most of your questions when planning and shooting the sun, moon, Milky Way, and more. Augmented Reality helps you find the North Star, Celestial Equator, depth of field, and field of view.
Add essential information like sunrise, sunset, twilights, golden Hour, blue hour, moonrise, moonset, supermoon dates, and the moon calendar, which are often-used details.
Use it as a location scouting tool to plan your photoshoots. You will know when to arrive and get help with composition before the session.
Calculations for time-lapse, long exposure, star trails, spotting stars, and hyperfocal distances are all part of the package.
Pro Tip: Go to the PhotoPills website and download the user guide so you can get the most out of this program.
SkyView (for iOS and Android) is an easy-to-use augmented reality app. It’s intuitive and is a great tool for identifying planets, constellations, and stars in the daytime or night sky.
Per CNET, “If you’ve ever wanted to know what you’re looking at in the night sky, this app is the perfect stargazer’s companion.”
Point your device to the sky to identify constellations, galaxies, stars, planets, and satellites at your location.
Great features allow you to schedule 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 isn’t required and it doesn’t require GPS or a data signal to work, which is critical for Dark Sky Places with little or no internet connection.
Tools For Post-Processing
You must process star trail and Milky Way images after capture. In my experience, the best tools to post-process are Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Photoshop Lightroom on your computer.
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 moving about after dark. It takes our eyes 20-30 minutes to adjust to the darkness. Also, if you are parking close to your photo location, be sure to turn off all interior vehicle lights so they don’t come on when you open the doors, thereby ruining your precious night vision for several minutes.
Milky Way Recipe: No Moon
- 8-30 second exposure
- 3200-6400 ISO
- 3200K White Balance
- 1-2 second exposure
- 400 ISO
Rule Of 500
- Lens wide open (e.g., f/2.8)
- 500 divided by the focal length = the longest acceptable exposure of stars without streaking due to Earth’s rotation
Star Trails Recipe
Star trail photography may be an all-night event. Scout your location during daylight hours. Find an interesting foreground to include in your composition. Set everything up except your camera. Count the number of steps from your camp/parking place to your setup. It will be easier to keep your bearings while walking after dark.
Pro Tip: Use an activated glow ring attached to your tripod so that you and any other people in the area can see your setup.
Star Trails Camera Settings
- BULB shutter speed
- 400 ISO
- 4000K White Balance
Star Trails Intervalometer (Electronic Cable Release) Settings
- Delay 00 00 00 (Delay before shutter is released = no delay)
- Long 00 04 00 (Exposure length = 4 minutes)
- Interval 00 00 01 (Interval between exposures = 1 second)
- N 0-399 (Number of shots, 0 = no finite amount)
- On/Off button to start, NOT the large remote shutter button
Allow one second between exposures (so the sensor doesn’t overheat and pixelate your images). Longer than that will show gaps between each shot.
Your DSLR/Mirrorless camera will capture between 18 and 45 exposures. The minimum length of total exposure time desired is 1.5 hours, or when your battery runs out. I get several hours out of a new battery.
Pro Tips: Purchase a new battery and charge fully for this DSLR/Mirrorless adventure. You’ll only get to use one each night during this process. Locate the North Star and use it to anchor your star trails. The North Star doesn’t move because it’s very close to the Earth’s north celestial pole.
- 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 for bed and visit your setup in the morning.
Want more on stargazing and the night sky? Consider
- 5 Reasons Flagstaff, Arizona Is Perfect For Stargazing
- 7 Best Constellations To View In The Winter Sky
- The Best Places To See The Northern Lights In Or Around Anchorage
- 11 Incredible Places To View The Southern Lights In Australia And New Zealand
- This State Is Home To The Most Dark Sky Parks On The U.S. East Coast