How to Photograph Stars at Night - Astrophotography
This is a Guest Post By Landscape & Fitness Photographer Thuc Do
SHOOT FOR THE STARS - A LITTLE ABOUT ME
Working at Australia’s biggest investment bank, on paper, seems like a dream. And it was, for a long time, my dream. At first, the glamour got me but fours year in and I was so disenchanted that I dreaded every workday, to the point of tears.
Photography had always been a hobby but at this point, it became an emotional crutch. Then, my husband, my DSLR and I went to New Zealand for a week where the mountains there brought me out of my slumber.
Back home, I made a promise to myself to create a life that makes me pumped to get out of bed, day in day out.
Photography has become not only my trade but my tool to get out there and explore, to live in the present, to be grateful and to inspire others to chase their own adventure and fulfilment.
Everything falls away when it’s me, my camera and a heart-stopping landscape, especially one that I’ve backpacked kilometres to get to. I love capturing a landscape so big and beautiful that you can’t help but be simultaneously humbled and inspired.
And one could argue that there’s no grander landscape than the night sky. When the Milky Way is spread above me and all I hear are the waves, the wind or that ringing sound of silence, I feel lucky to just be alive. So let’s dive into how I shoot the stars.
HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH STARS AT NIGHT WITH A DSLR
1. THE GEAR
When I’m heading out to photograph the night sky, I typically have my Canon 6D, a full-frame camera renowned for great low light capability, my Canon EF 24-105mm f/4.0 lens because it’s my widest-angle lens and my sturdy Sirui tripod with a ball head. I tuck spare batteries into my pocket, my Goal Zero Venture 30 battery pack with my iPhone and iPhone cable and my Black Diamond Spot headlamp. My camera’s usually just slung across my body and my little extras are in my No More Ugly camera bag.
I’ll often take my No More Ugly bag in addition to a backpack to a shoot. At home, I store my gear in an f-stop Gear ICU. When on the move in the outdoors, I’ll just have my camera on me or stashed in the top of my pack.
Above is my complete kit as a fitness, outdoors and travel photographer (not pictured is my one and only flash).
2. THE SETTINGS
Settings-wise, astrophotography is simpler than it looks. A slow shutter speed like 15”, a high ISO such as 6400 and the lowest aperture your lens can go and you’re sure to capture a few twinkling stars.
What makes an especially stellar star shot (pun intended), in my opinion, is composition and post-production. These two elements are where true play and artistry come in.
As I love to showcase scale, it’s important to me to have some subject in addition to the stars. I look to trees, rock and people for this and often, my model is myself!
The tricky thing with nailing the composition in astrophotography is that you’re working with manual focus and working in the dark.
The way I focus is I point my camera towards the brightest star, I go to Live View and zoom in as close as possible, and I manually focus on this star. If I can’t find anything to focus on, I focus to infinity and then pare it back a touch.
The way I perfect my framing is I do a couple 5-second exposures until the composition is exactly as I imagined. Then, I will push it to the longest exposure I can manage without star trails. I like my stars tack-sharp. If you can’t tell already, there’s a lot of trial and error involved!
(Image: Seal Rocks, Australia. "I love this photo. The trees are interesting and to me, it represents staying grounded whilst reaching for the stars.")
(Image: Warrumbungle National Park, Australia. An ancient volcanic landscape under a big sky.)
There are stars and planets out there that you won’t see with your naked eye but in post, they will come shining through. The way I edit changes from photo to photo but there are a couple of things that I will always do to an astro photo. These steps are to dehaze, to reduce noise, to bring out highlights and whites, to increase the contrast and to cool down the image. I will also often add a slight pink tint as well as run an adjustment brush over the Milky Way to bring out its highlights and increase the contrast even more.
(Image: After: Fisherman at Seal Rocks, Australia. Introducing another source of light often adds yet another dimension to your photograph. Think headlamps, fairy lights, campfires and have a play with light painting using a torch or even your phone.)
(Image: After: Seal Rocks, Australia. When shooting solo, use the 10-second timer to give yourself time to scramble into position (or a remote shutter release)).
- Take note of the moon phases. A full moon will be so bright that it will drown out the stars.
- Apps like SkySafari can help you determine where the Milky Way will be.
- Sometimes, dialling back the brightness of your LCD screen can help your eyes shift focus from the scene to your camera.
- To reduce camera shake, use the 2 or 10-second timer.
SHOOT FOR THE STARS
I hope my story drives you to live your best life and I hope my astrophotography tips help you capture magical night skies of your own. I love connecting with likeminded creatives so please stay in touch via Instagram or my portfolio!
Thuc is a Sydney fitness, outdoors and travel photographer who lusts after big landscapes, heart-filled human feats and soul-shaping experiences. Through photography, she freezes beautiful and powerful moments to inspire others to dream big and live big, to chase their own versions of adventure and fulfilment.