Starlight Photography

Starlight photography with a dSLR can be tricky and until you understand your camera, it will take some practice. There are a number of factors to take into consideration. Putting you camera in Auto mode just won’t give you the results you expect. You need to be comfortable with the full manual mode and understand shutter speed, aperture and ISO to achieve a good image. When doing this type of photography you also have to accept a certain amount of noise will always be present, but controlling the acceptable amount of noise is where personal preference will play a part.

Here is a sample I took on 11 June 2012:

Starscape with Windpump - Copyright Riaan Roux Photography

Click for large View) Starscape with Windpump – Copyright Riaan Roux Photography

What you will need:

  • A dSLR Camera (I used a SONY SLT-A55, results may vary on other makes)
  • A good wide angle lens (I used a 19mm Tokina Lens, a kit lens will do but will result in lower quality)
  • A sturdy tripod (A cheap tripod will do, but don’t expect great results)

This photography is best done on a cold evening with no clouds or wind (motion). Cold is best as you do not want heat waves blurring images. Heat radiating into the atmosphere bends light which is why you see distant objects causing waves, your camera will pick this up too and translate it into a blur. You also don’t want a full moon as its light is too strong for the photography you are going to do here (starlight). Get away from town and street lights. Anything brighter than the stars will cause a hotspot of light on your image.

Pick a spot somewhere where some light from a distant source is to your back and set up your camera away from any light. Distant light will give enough light to light up objects such as trees or rocks, but not fill in enough light to create hot light.


Your settings (manual mode):

File Type – Use RAW (ARW on Sony) as JPG may produce unpredictable results. If you do not know how to edit RAW images, refer to your camera manual and supplied software.

ISO – I use between ISO200 and ISO800 depending on the available light. For a very dark area with no other filling light I set ISO to 800. Some cameras produce a lot of noise at ISO800, so you might want to bring it up.

Aperture – Use wide open or slightly stopped down if you like. This will depend on the sharpness your lens can give you at wide open. I use f/3.5 on the Tokina. Set your focus ring to infinity. Since we are focusing to infinity the depth of field is very deep which is what we want.

Shutter – You can set shutter to between 10 and 30 seconds. I usually do 3 shots of all scenes with 10, 20 and 30 second exposures so I can pick the best one when editing.

White Balance – I manually adjust my white balance to between 2000k and 2500k as stars actually produce a pretty warm light. If you cannot adjust white balance in Kelvin values on your camera, try the “incandescent” light WB as the nearest.

Set up your camera for timer record (10 seconds). When you press the shutter your timer-shutter will start counting down and you should step away from your camera and tripod at least 5 meters and stand still. Tripods can pick up the smallest vibration from the ground and when you walk around behind your tripod while doing a long exposure your image will show more blurring. If a vehicle comes by on a road near you while you are doing the long exposure you can dump that image and try another as the vibration WILL affect your image.

The above is a guide and results may vary from one camera manufacturer to another as well as lens types and makes, but I hope you can get some better starlight photos.

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